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Pot law changes: Will legislators boldly go where they rarely venture?

Photo: Unai Mateo

Key state House lawmakers want to get to work immediately on changing the state's marijuana initiative, passed just two months ago to statewide and even national acclaim.

It's an unusual move, since legislators normally wait at least two years to make changes in voter-approved laws unless sponsors of the initiative are on board. And the idea of changes has drawn opposition from supporters of the groundbreaking measure. But the chairs of three House committes want amendments to set licensing fees that are high enough to cover costs for the long run.  

Last week, the initiative's author said the Olympia push to amend Initiative 502, which last year legalized recereational marijuana, is contrary to the spirit of the measure.

A significant increase in licensing fees could push out small growers and retailers, said Alison Holcomb, who acted as director for the pro-502 campaign. A big-business takeover of the market, is exactly what the sponsors of the initiative wanted to prevent when they set licensing fees for growers, retailers and processors of the drug at $250, plus $1,000 annually, Holcomb said.

"The point here is not to consolidate control of a fledgling industry in the hands of a few large businesses," Holcomb said. "We're not interested in creating a large industry with an interest in promoting marijuana use."

Holcomb's statement came in response to a push by Rep. Christopher Hurst, a Democrat from Enumclaw in rural Pierce County, and others, to slow down implementation of the measure and raise the price of marijuana growing and selling licenses.

In addition to setting licensing fees, the initiative broadly defined what the shape of the legal marijuana market in Washington should be, set tax levels for the drug, and directed the government to use much of the tax money to fund substance-abuse study and treatment. Within that framework, the initiative gave Washington's Liquor Control Board authority to make specific rules in some areas, and to control the licensing of growers, sellers and processors of the drug.

Last week, Hurst joined with Reps. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and Ross Hunter, D-Medina, in sending a letter to Washington's Liquor Control Board objecting to the timeline established by the initiative, which requires the board to finish making the rules by Dec. 1 this year.

"I'm not interested in changing the will of the people," said Hurst. "But I think there are some fair questions that need to be asked."

As it stands, the initiative exposes the state to too much risk, he said. The cost of making the rules has to be covered by the Liquor Control Board's general fund until tax revenue from the initiative starts coming in. Inspecting large agricultural operations will also be expensive, Hurst said.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson will meet with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week in a session where they hope to hear that the Obama administration will take a relaxed attitude. If the federal government were to shut down Washington's marijuana industry before those expenses could be paid back, taxpayers would be left to foot the bill, Hurst said. 

So, he said, the cost of the licenses should cover the cost of making the rules from the beginning.

"Why would we sell these things for less if they're worth more?" he added.

"Maybe there's a place for mom-and-pop operations," Hurst said. But it's not worth it, he said, for the state to take a financial risk just to keep license fees low.

The initiative also doesn't do enough to safeguard public safety, Hurst said. By capping fines charged for licensing violations, the initiative could keep the Liquor Control Board from being an effective regulator.

"If you're making 70,000 bucks a week," Hurst said, "what do you care if you get a ticket for $1,000 once in a while?"

Holcomb said she couldn't see how Hurst thought the initiative would cost the state money in the long run. The risk of the feds shutting the market down before the state saw income is remote, she argued. In 15 years of medical marijuana being legal in some states, Holcomb said, the federal government has never prosecuted a single state employee, or even threatened to. 

Hurst said the initiative also doesn't set strict enough rules for businesses linked to DUIs or other crimes their patrons might commit in surrounding areas. Under the initiative as it stands, there's no set number of nearby crimes that would automatically trigger a sanction. Instead, the law gives the liquor control board discretion to decide when a business is associated with too much wrongdoing. 

Holcomb said of the standard the law sets for crimes assocciated with marijuana merchants, "It's essentially copied and pasted from our liquor control act." Since the liquor control board has experience keeping communities safe from alcohol customers, Holcomb said, she used similar language to channel that experience toward regulating marijuana.

Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, the Democratic leader of the Republican-dominated coalition controlling the state Senate, said earlier this week that he would categorically not support any amendment to the initiative.

"I think the people have spoken," Tom said. 

Hurst said he understands the challenge of trying to change an initiative, which by law requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature. For an amendment to have a chance at passing this year's divided legislature, Hurst said, it will have to have an immediate, commonsense appeal. Asked about Tom's pledge to not support any move to amend the initiative, Hurst said, "you need to go back and ask him if he's read it."

Ultimately, said Liquor Control Board director Rick Garza, the agency is obligated to follow the law's instructions —which include the license fees and a specific timeline. 

To take public input, the agency will be holding meetings around the state throughout the rest of January and into February. The first meeting will take place at 7 p.m. today (Jan. 22) at liquor control board headquarters in Olympia.

"We've only got so much time," Garza said. "If they're interested in doing something in the next four months, we'll do it." But, he added, it would have to be through amendments to the law.

Referring to I-502, Alan Rathbun, director of the board's licensing division, said, "It's the law, and we have to follow it."

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