By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington state will clamp down on bars that have been sidestepping a ban on consuming marijuana in public by converting part of their space into private clubs.
The move comes as the state considers ways to regulate marijuana after voters legalized the drug for recreational use last year.
In November Washington and Colorado became the first U.S. states to approve marijuana for adult recreational use. The Washington law would ultimately permit cannabis to be sold and taxed at state-licensed stores.
The state's Liquor Control Board, charged with overseeing the move to legal recreational pot use, said on Wednesday that it would crack down on bars that convert into clubs where people can consume marijuana.
"These licensed locations are allowing patrons to either smoke, vaporize or otherwise ingest marijuana on the premises," the board said in a statement.
Brian Smith, a board spokesman, said the law prevents public display of pot use, including in restaurants and bars, a civil infraction punishable by a $103 fine on the customer.
"You can't open it up, you can't show somebody, and you certainly can't smoke it or ingest it in some way in a public place," he said. "Bars and restaurants are public places that we license."
Smith said there were at least two bars in the Pacific Northwest state where patrons were using pot. The Washington state liquor control board "will take steps to prevent that kind of activity from proliferating," he said.
The Liquor Control Board has until December to set up a system to oversee adult recreational pot use.
Under current law, there are no provisions that tell authorities how to deal with bars or restaurants that allow marijuana on their premises.
'WANT TO COMPLY'
Jeff Call, owner of the Stonegate Pizza and Rum Bar, said he had partitioned part of his Tacoma bar as a private club where pot users could light up, and that he wants to work with authorities.
"It all depends on the rules. We want to comply. I am trying to work with the state. We are trying to do it in a responsible manner," he said.
In the state capital of Olympia, Frank Schnarr, owner of Frankie's Sports Bar & Grill, also has set up a private room so customers can use marijuana. He said he would maintain that arrangement and challenge the new restrictions in court.
"It got passed for recreational use," Schnarr said of the voter-approved measure. "They should let it be smoked everywhere."
The Liquor Control Board is due to draft new pot regulations by May 22, gather public comment at a hearing on June 26, and accept or reject the rules on July 3. They will become effective on August 3.
The state's Democratic Governor Jay Inslee said he was committed to applying the law in a way that will create a well-regulated industry for marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.
"The law is clear that marijuana cannot be consumed in public. Allowing that would run counter to the state's commitment to responsible implementation and send just the wrong message," said David Postman, a spokesman for Inslee.
Eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana for medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana went into effect in Rhode Island on Monday after the state last year became the 15th in the United States to enact such legislation.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Xavier Briand)