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Seattle police: Can off-duty officers work pot shop security?

A grower holds out a product at the High Times U.S. Cannabis Cup in Seattle, Washington September 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Redmond
A grower holds out a product at the High Times U.S. Cannabis Cup in Seattle, Washington September 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Bryan Cohen

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The Seattle Police Department, grappling with how to handle legal marijuana, is considering whether off-duty officers should be allowed to moonlight as security guards for the city's first recreational pot shops when they open later this year.

Pot's stigma and prohibition at the federal level swayed the Denver Police Department in December to bar off-duty officers from working for legal marijuana businesses. Recreational pot stores opened for business earlier this month in Colorado.

The Seattle department faces the same questions, just one of many issues law enforcement agencies are grappling with after Washington state and Colorado voted in 2012 to legalize recreational pot.

No Seattle police policy specifically prohibits off-duty officers from providing security to future marijuana retailers or to existing medical marijuana shops. However, a Seattle police spokesman said that the policy was under review.

"We view this as synonymous with working in an area where liquor is sold," Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said. "Marijuana is being sold there, not consumed there."

"We are considering to allow officers to do that work. The department has not made a decision and has not taken a position. We will be reviewing the possibility of officers working off-duty security at retail marijuana shops."

The officers arguably would be committing a federal crime by providing security services, said Robert Mikos, a law professor and marijuana policy expert at Vanderbilt University.

"They're aiding and abetting the sale of marijuana," Mikos said. It's not absolutely clear ... but it does put them in a legal gray area."

SAME AS LIQUOR STORES?

Seattle City Attorney spokeswoman Kimberly Mills said she was skeptical officers would be permitted to work in the legal marijuana industry. "It's unlikely but not out of the realm of possibility. The issue hasn't been broached yet," Mills said.

Currently, off-duty officers can provide security to liquor and grocery stores that sell alcohol because drinks are not consumed on the premises, but a police policy prohibits officers from working in bars or nightclubs where alcohol is consumed.

The department also bars off-duty officers from work "that would tend to lower the dignity of the profession" as well as jobs that have "a potential for conflicts of interest."

While recreational marijuana has been legalized in Washington, it remains a banned narcotic under federal law. However, the Obama administration has said it will give Colorado and Washington state leeway to permit recreational use.

"We're not categorically saying no," Whitcomb said of the policy, adding that the department would be conferring with the city attorney and state attorney general in the coming months to make a decision.

He said the off-duty policy would eventually be amended to specifically address whether or not officers are allowed to work for marijuana retailers. Off-duty officers are paid around $45 an hour for private security jobs.

Seattle police officers must get every off-duty job pre-approved by the department. Whitcomb said to his knowledge no officer had yet sought permission to work security for a medical marijuana shop.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jonathan Oatis)

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