4 Strategies to Address Weed Smoking in City Parks

Weed smoking in public, such as during the 2014 Hempfest in Boston, is illegal.
Image: Flickr

Many states have legalized marijuana, but the laws do not authorize weed smoking in public, leaving cities to figure out enforcement.

Currently, recreational marijuana is legal in eight states, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, and the District of Columbia, but weed smoking in public is still unlawful. What about city parks?” some may ask. The short answer is, pot can’t be consumed in city parks, either.

Several major cities have struggled to enforce the rules. Here are four ways cities are working to address weed smoking in all public areas, with mixed results.

Local Ordinances Reinforce Weed Smoking Limits

“Washington state law protects private marijuana use, so you can consume openly in a residence as long as the property owner allows it,” reads a marijuana FAQ page on Seattle’s city website. “Marijuana cannot be consumed in public view, such as on streets or sidewalks or in public parks.”

In addition, Washington state’s Smoking in Public Places law prohibits smoking of any kind in public places and places of employment, further criminalizing public marijuana use.

Smoking in public parks is also illegal in Boston. In 2013, Boston’s city council passed an Ordinance to Promote Clean and Healthy Parks put forth by its late Mayor Thomas M. Menino. It criminalized “inhaling, exhaling, burning or carrying any lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe or any other lighted or vaporized substance in any manner or form including marijuana used for medical or any other purposes.” The fine for smoking in a Boston park is $250.

That year, organizers and attendees of the Boston Freedom Rally were concerned about a proposed fine increase for smoking medicinal or recreational marijuana in Boston Common during the annual pro-marijuana event. The rally, also known as Hempfest, has now been running for 28 years.

Enforcement of marijuana laws led to a spike in 2016 arrests in Washington, D.C. According to the Washington Post, arrests for public weed smoking in the District nearly tripled in 2016. More than 400 people were arrested in 2016 for public consumption of marijuana. That compares with 142 people in 2015, the year marijuana use became legal in the city. Marijuana arrests are expected to remain high this year, as almost 80 have been arrested between January and April.

Reno Sets the Weed Smoking Stage with Public Engagement 

The proactive Reno Police Department reminded residents with a press conference and online release of recreational marijuana rules in late June, before recreational pot became legal in Nevada on July 1.

The FAQ guide answered many questions users may have with new, relaxed laws.

“Marijuana cannot be consumed or smoked in any public place, including parks, sporting events, moving vehicles, casinos, hotels, concerts, festivals, marijuana facilities or while you’re walking down the street,” according to the department’s website. “People who smoke or consume marijuana in public can be fined $600 for the first offense.”

The guide details the age threshold for buying recreational pot (21); lists the amounts of people can legally carry in public (28.3 grams of marijuana, and 3.5 grams of concentrated pot or edibles) and details the laws about growing marijuana plants at home.

Additionally, the page lists what people are not permitted to do under the influence of marijuana, like possessing a firearm or driving.

If a driver is suspected of being under the influence of marijuana, law enforcement can test the driver’s blood to determine if he or she is under the influence,” according to the guide. “It is unlawful to drive if you have more than 2 nanograms per milliliter of marijuana in your blood or 5 nanograms per milliliter of marijuana metabolite in your blood.”

Denver Tries Targeted Park Use Bans

In 2016, Denver Parks and Recreation Department issued a temporary directive banning suspected drug dealers and users from downtown parks and the Cherry Creek Greenway for 90 days, according to Denverite.com.

“The Cherry Creek bike trail has become a hub for drug sales and use, jeopardizing the public’s ability to safely enjoy one of Denver’s signature amenities in our outdoor recreation system,” city officials said in a press release. “The purpose of the directive is to protect public health and parkland, increase safety and improve the overall experience for trail users.”

In February, according to a story in the Denver Post, a county judge issued a rebuke to the city’s parks and recreation officials, saying the policy violated the due-process rights of Troy Holm, who was charged with trespassing and banned from Commons Park for 90 days. Attorney Adam Frank of the American Civil Liberties Union represented Holm.

By authorizing police to issue so-called suspension notices that immediately made it a crime to enter a public park, Denver attempted an end-run around the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director in a prepared release. “The court’s ruling affirms a bedrock principle of due process: the government cannot take away our rights without first providing, at a minimum, notice of the accusation and a fair opportunity to defend against it.”

San Francisco Offers Limited Public Weed Smoking Permits

This spring, for the first time, the city of San Francisco gave an official OK for a long running pot party held annually in the city’s counterculture Haight District on April 20.

“The city issued a permit to a handful of Haight Street merchants and local cannabis businesses to oversee the event,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The sponsor businesses would be responsible for trash and security, things that were overlooked in the past.

“It will be much more organized having people take responsibility for this,” Joey Hafner, general manager of retail for Diamond Supply Co., a Haight Street clothing store, was quoted in the Chronicle story. “We don’t expect it to get too crazy. We’ve really set up the infrastructure for it.”

A “group smoke” on Hippy Hill in Golden Gate Park, while more regulated than in past years with a 21-plus rule, resulted in no arrests for weed smoking in public, compared to eight in 2016.

New Mass. Recreational Marijuana Law to Let Locals Decide

About the author

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.