A Weedy Problem
Medical marijuana reform heads for governor’s signature
Who: Author Bruce Barcott
What: Weed The People’ The Future of Legal Marijuana in America
When: 7pm Thurs., April 23
Where: Village Books
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
A document will arrive soon on the governor’s desk he’s indicated he will sign. When he does, if he does, the document will radically transform the delivery of medical marijuana in Washington, reducing its availability to patients and dramatically increasing its cost. Ironically, this arrives at a moment of bated success in the state’s cautious yet ambitious experiment with marijuana, and at a moment of ferment in the reconsideration and reform of drug laws nationally.
Senate Bill 5052, which would close most collective gardens and medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington, passed both the House and Senate this session. The effort—along with a blizzard of other bills intended to fine tune the state’s marijuana experiment—was not, on the face of it, wrongheaded or mean-spirited. Two nascent efforts to legally deliver marijuana are in collision.
The medical and recreational marijuana industries exist entirely separately in Washington, each created by distinct citizen initiatives that often don’t play nice together. Medical growers and stores are not licensed or regulated. Some of them test their products for pesticides, for example, but there is no requirement to do so. Recreational businesses, in contrast, are subject to special taxes and strict rules about what they’re allowed to do. That’s made pot in medical stores cheaper, which—if you accept that there are some customers who are not true medical patients,—has made them tough competition for the new recreational market.
In the murky gray between the two industries in cost and availability of product has flowered a black market that has additionally cut into the recreational marijuana effort, originally sold to voters as a means to both regulate the drug and generate revenues of benefit to state goals.
State lawmakers have struggled for some time to reconcile and harmonize these efforts, to create a level playing field balanced to the side—as lawmakers will—of regulation and revenue. But the recreational side is costlier for consumers, and state efforts intend to include patients among those consumers.
It’s often true that the first racer off the block is not always a leader at the finish; and Washington with its peculiar initiative process was an early starter on both the effort to bring cannabis to patients and, through Initiative 502, to normalize its use more broadly through models the state already uses to tax and control alcohol.
The state raced ahead of even a hint of a green light from the federal government, where the drug continues to be strongly interdicted, and that meant building into the state’s budding industry a lot of cautions and controls and demonstrations of seriousness other states, starting later, may wave aside. Indeed, it was unclear at the outset whether weed might be whacked by federal drug enforcement imperatives.
Cautions intended to demonstrate seriousness included a prohibition against owning plants for private use; a goofy lottery system, a randomness intended to assure outcomes weren’t gamed, that carved apart the logic of cultivation, preparation and retail sale of the product and distributed each part to applicants and businesses who were by blind draw perhaps not optimally suited to the task; burdensome requirements on how much of the product might be grown and how much might be bought and the price at which it must be purchased; and larded overall, an onerous tax at each phase of cultivation, process, and sale that made the end product ludicrously expensive over-the-counter, and totteringly unprofitable for a business.
“People buy pot from a store because they’re initially curious,” Jake Lamont, managing partner of Evergreen Cannabis in Blaine, noted in a recent interview. “They’re not return customers, and it is hard to build a business around that.”
A simmering black market, infused by a looser, cheaper pharmaceutical supply, knocks big holes in the profitability of a 502 7-Eleven.
Under the proposed law, patients would have to purchase their product under the same rules as the recreational users, unless they register—a requirement shakily in conflict with other patient protection and privacy laws. Most dispensaries and collective gardens will close. The number of plants a patient might privately cultivate is slashed from 15 to four. These are big hits to the ill and infirm.
And the recreational road continues to be rocky.
“In Colorado, the first retail marijuana license went to those already operating within the state’s well-regulated medical marijuana system,” writes Bruce Barcott in his new book Weed The People, which considers the future of legal marijuana in America by studying its past. “Washington state, by contrast, was setting up to be a free-for-all. The Liquor Control Board announced it would issue 334 retail marijuana sales licenses spread throughout the state according to population. Seattle, for instance, would be allotted 21 store licenses; the burg of Washougal would get one. Existing medical dispensaries were given no advantage. Me and you and your old Aunt Sue would have just as much chance of winning a pot license as the owners of The Joint.
“The rules,” the Bainbridge Island author relates, “were long, complicated and confusing. Only Washington residents could own or invest in a license. Retailers had to secure a store front lease before applying for a license [a cost they would carry through months of delay in roll-out]. All pot stores had to comply with the thousand-foot rule, which required a 1,000-foot distance from the nearest school, daycare or park. There were rules about computer tracking software, packaging, THC limits, advertising, store signage, and on and on.”
As Barcott notes, more than half of the state’s largest 100 towns banned or temporarily halted the permitting of marijuana stores, including most of the communities in Whatcom County. Of 24 licensed stores on opening day of legal retail, only five across the state were able to obtain enough dried, cured and legally packaged marijuana to open—none in Seattle, just one in Bellingham, Top Shelf Cannabis.
Yet despite all the caution and control, the world did not end with the over-the counter sale of dope.
“Two years after legalizing marijuana my home state of Washington is thriving,” Barcott relates. “Colorado is booming.
“Neither Colorado nor Washington have reported an increase in stoned workers, stoned managers, stoned drivers, stoned mothers, stoned fathers, stoned baristas, stoned I.T. guys, stoned H.R. managers, stoned CEOs, stoned CFOs, stoned grocery clerks, stoned ferry captains, stoned ferry passengers, stoned doctors, stoned lawyers, stoned cable guys, stoned electricians, stoned farmers and stoned stoners.”
Crime fell, Barcott reports.
“In 2013 and the early months of 2014, King County experienced its lowest overall crime rate since the 1960s. By mid-2014, drunk and drugged driving arrests in both Washington and Colorado were at all-time lows.” Illegal pot growers, he noted, moved their operations elsewhere and state and federal agents, who had raided farms and destroyed more than half a million plants in 2009 found and eradicated just 39,000 plants four years later.
“Cities and counties saved tens of millions of dollars by not chasing marijuana users,” Barcott reports. “In Washington State 6,879 people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges in 2011. In 2013, that number was 120—a drop of 98 percent. More importantly, nearly 7,000 people enjoyed lives undisrupted by the trauma of arrest and jail time.”
Those arrests will soon stop in Alaska and Oregon, too, he notes. “Encouraged by the success of Colorado and Washington, the two states voted to legalize marijuana in November 2014. Washington, D.C., also voted to legalize, a decision stalled by Congress. By January 2017, Barcott predicts, the entire West Coast of America could very well be marijuana legal.
It’s within that ferment, that widening latitude, Washington reform struggles and stumbles. Once a leader, the state may soon find itself behind others in a rational implementation of reform. Oregon, for example, appears to have gleaned the best from both Washington and Colorado experiments to produce a law unencumbered at roll-out.
Washington continues to tinker. Encouragingly, it appears to be a bipartisan effort.
Last year the House passed a bill by a vote of 91-7 that allows marijuana processors to sell marijuana concentrates and marijuana-infused products to retailers and other processors, as well as to consumers. House Bill 2246 was unanimously supported by local representatives of both parties. The Senate considered a bill loosening requirements for marijuana processing and retail licenses, and another that allows marijuana to benefit from tax breaks extended to agriculture, a recognition of a new cash crop for the state—the latter again unanimously supported by local lawmakers.
Last week, House Bill 2136 passed, unanimously supported by lawmakers from the 40th and 42nd Districts, eliminating the 25 percent producer and processor taxes. It raises the retailer tax from 25 to 30 percent and specifies that the taxes are imposed on the buyer. The Senate passed a similar bill, Senate Bill 6062, earlier this year by a vote of 26-22. And then there’s Senate Bill 5052, on its way to the governor, riddled with problems but an honest attempt to wade into the weeds of marijuana reform.
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