BENTON HARBOR — Some recreational marijuana rules are clear – adults 21 or older who use marijuana in public can be charged with a civil infraction and fined $100.

What is not clear is the definition of “public,” said panel members during Thursday’s town hall meeting on recreational marijuana, sponsored by the S.H.A.R.P (Society Harmonizing Against Racial Profiling) Foundation of Benton Harbor.

This is just one example of questions surrounding the use of recreational marijuana, they said.

“Some court is ultimately going to decide,” Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic said while addressing the forum.

Added Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey: “We don’t make the laws. We just enforce them. If you have questions, please call. We’ll be happy to come and talk to a group of people and answer your questions and bring copies of what the law directs us to do.”

One question was if people can smoke marijuana on their front porch. Some panelists said they believed that is OK, because they would be on private property. Bailey disagreed. He said he believes that private means out of sight of the public.

“We could write you a ticket and test it in court,” he said.

Bailey also said smoking marijuana in a parking lot is illegal even if you’re inside your car.

State legislators usually make the law but in this case, voters approved legalizing recreational marijuana in November.

The law allows people to give away up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana as long as the other person is at least 21. But if the person is paid for the marijuana, that remains a crime.

Another question came up about smoking marijuana in an apartment in which the rent is subsidized by federal money. Even though marijuana is legal in Michigan, it’s still illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

Bailey said his deputies wouldn’t get involved because it is not a violation of state law.

“They would have to go through the process of evicting them based on what the federal law is,” he said. “We would not have any part of that.”

He said the same would be true if a landlord didn’t allow marijuana usage in the rental agreement.

“It’s a civil thing with them, not with law enforcement,” he said.

According to the law, people 21 or older can possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow up to 12 plants in a place that is not visible to the public. In addition, people can have up to 10 ounces of marijuana in their residence, as long as anything over 2.5 ounces is locked up.

A person 21 years or older caught using marijuana in a public or prohibited place can be charged with a civil infraction, fined $100 and forfeits the marijuana. The same goes if the person is cultivating marijuana in a place visible to the public or has more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana unlocked in a residence.

For these infractions, the punishment stays the same. 

But for others, the punishment escalates.

People 21 or older who possess or cultivate more than the allowed amount, but not more than twice the legal amount face:

• for first violation, a civil infraction, $500 fine and forfeiture of marijuana.

• for second violation, a civil infraction, $1,000 fine and forfeiture of marijuana.

• for third and subsequent violations, the person is guilty of a misdemeanor and faces of fine up to $2,000.

The possession and cultivation of marijuana for anyone under 21 is a civil infraction that includes escalating fines and forfeiture of the marijuana. People under 18 also would need to go through drug education or counseling.

Sepic said the new law replaces state laws about use and possession of marijuana and some of the law regarding distribution, but many of the old state laws still apply. 

For example, it is still against the law to take marijuana onto school property, Bailey said.

“It’s important for people to know that if you’re going to a basketball game or football game or anything on the school (property), it is illegal for you to take your 2.5 ounces onto school grounds,” he said. “You could be charged with a two-year crime.”

It is also still against the law to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs, including marijuana. 

Berrien County Public Defender Chris Renna said officers look at the total situation, since there is no test for drug impairment like there is for alcohol impairment. 

“It’s going to take a while for more testing to catch up,” he said.

Bailey said his deputies have been arresting people for driving under the influence of drugs before this law went into effect.

“If an officer sees you’re driving impaired, you’re crossing the center line, you’re driving 10 miles an hour in a 35 mile per hour zone, and they have probable cause to make the traffic stop, just like a drunk driver, we will go up and speak to the driver,” he said. “If we feel they’re impaired, we will get them out of the car and run them through tests.”

Gwen Swanigan, founder of the S.H.A.R.P. Foundation, said she will set up more town hall meetings as needed.

“They need to iron things out, so a lot of things will change,” she said. “As they change, I’ll be putting it out there, informing you as far as the next meeting.”

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege