John Connelly inhales marijuana vapor with assistance from Stonegate employee Jenae DeCampo in March. Stonegate is a pizza-and-rum bar in Tacoma, Wash.<&#33;--IPTC&#58; John Connelly, left, inhales marijuana vapor just after midnight Saturday, March 2, 2013, with the help of bar worker Jenae DeCampo, right, in the upstairs lounge area of Stonegate, a pizza-and-rum bar in Tacoma, Wash. Owner Jeff Call charges patrons a small fee to become a member of the private second-floor club, which prohibits smoking marijuana, but does permit vaporizing, a method that involves heating the marijuana without burning it. Last fall, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana use for adults over 21. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)-->

Washington state officials to use minors to test marijuana shops

SEATTLE — A select group of minors will go into Washington state’s new legal pot stores on a covert mission: to try to buy weed for the state.

To curtail youth access to legal marijuana, state officials want to use minors in pot-buying stings next year when stores are expected to open.

Charged with implementing the new law that allows adults to possess an ounce of pot, the state Liquor Control Board already uses minors in “controlled buys” of alcohol at retail stores.

Justin Nordhorn, the board’s enforcement chief, said it makes sense to apply the same practice to pot, particularly with the federal Department of Justice watchdogging the state’s newest legal intoxicant. “Of course the feds are looking at a tightly regulated market around youth access, and I think this shows we’re being responsible,” he said.

The agency also will ask the legislature to set penalties for minors who attempt to purchase legal pot and those who use or manufacture fake ID cards for that purpose.

Alison Holcomb, chief author of the new law, said using minors in pot-buying stings would support the state and federal emphasis on limiting youth access. But as criminal-justice director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Holcomb said she does not think adding criminal laws for pot possession is a good idea. She said she would prefer a focus on other prevention strategies.

The head of a statewide substance-abuse prevention group also supports the stings, as long as minors are not put in danger. Because pot shops might open as cash-only businesses, “it seems the potential for crime is higher, so protection for minors in sting operations must be seamless,” said Derek Franklin, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.

Stings appear to be warranted in alcohol enforcement. Data for the past 17 months show that alcohol retailers had an 85 percent compliance rate in youth stings. In other words, for every seven times minors working for the state tried to buy alcohol in stores, bars or restaurants, they succeeded once.

While Washington has licensed more than 20,000 locations to sell alcohol, the state plans to allow just 334 marijuana stores, making it easier, in theory, to enforce the law at them.

The state now hires 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds across the state to use in alcohol stings, Nordhorn said. About 30 minors, both men and women, work for the liquor board. They get paid about $10 an hour, Nordhorn said, and they tend to be students interested in law enforcement and substance-abuse prevention.

Nordhorn plans to send minors into pot stores to try to purchase products. It’s the store clerks’ responsibility to make sure customers are 21. The law does not allow minors even in stores.

If there is a pot sale, the minor would go outside, where an enforcement officer would be waiting, Nordhorn said. The officer would go in and cite the store for a violation.

The penalty for a first offense is a 10-day suspension of a store’s license or a $2,500 fine. A second violation in three years would bring a 30-day license suspension. A third violation in three years would cost a business its license.

Read this story on »