4 keys to moving forward with marijuana reform

City Attorney Pete Holmes Credit: William Ceriale

Some time this summer, retail marijuana stores will open around the state, providing residents with the legal access they demanded when they approved Initiative 502 a year and a half ago. 

While that step is huge, much work remains to be done in four crucial areas before we can call Washington’s legalization of recreational marijuana a success: (1) Regulatory enforcement to keep I-502’s promises to voters; (2) an adequate supply of legal marijuana to put illegal (unlicensed) drug dealers out of business; (3) reconciling the recreational and medical marijuana systems; and (4) incentivizing local governments not to “opt out” of I-502.

1. Legalization and Regulation. Washingtonians did not vote in 2012 to allow marijuana use by anyone, anywhere, anytime. We voted instead for a carefully regulated system for adults 21 and over that would simultaneously discourage youth access, keep impaired drivers off our roads and deter public marijuana smoking.

No one should be subjected to marijuana smoke on Seattle’s sidewalks or in our parks and playgrounds. We need to enforce I-502’s ban on smoking marijuana in public (civil infractions — not crimes), particularly where it impacts nonusers. Seattle City Council passed a bill supporting this effort last fall, and my office stands ready to enforce public smoking tickets in court.

But I-502 should not effectively exclude renters and visitors who may not have a private place where they can use marijuana legally. Marijuana tourism, thoughtfully regulated, can also boost our recovering economy. That’s why I support allowing a limited number of 21-and-over venues where adults can consume marijuana products purchased from licensed retailers. We should also limit marijuana smoking at outdoor events such as Hempfest to 21-and-over restricted areas.

2. Fighting the Illegal Market. Drug dealers contribute to the cycle of crime and violence inherent in illegal markets: They don’t “card” minors, they sell contaminated products and they escape taxation. Washington needs to ensure that I-502 licensees can produce and sell a sufficient supply to displace the illegal marijuana market. I am concerned that current rules may not allow for enough production (a total of 80 metric tons statewide, when the RAND Corp. estimates current use closer to 175 metric tons) or sufficient retail stores (only 21 in all of Seattle) to wrest the market from drug dealers. The Washington State Liquor Control Board must be prepared to react quickly to supply shortfalls by increasing production limits and granting more retail licenses.

As law enforcement partners, we need to do our part to ensure the regulated marijuana market works. Once I-502 is fully online, we must take action against those who continue to grow and sell marijuana illegally. Entrepreneurs must be required to meet I-502’s newly established quality and safety requirements, pay taxes and obtain required licenses, just like any other regulated businesses.

3. Addressing Medical Marijuana. Three years ago (before I-502), both houses of our Legislature enacted SB 5073, which would have regulated medical marijuana dispensaries similarly to Colorado’s system. Unfortunately, key provisions of the bill were vetoed, leaving an unregulated system of medical marijuana sellers, self-identifying mostly as “collective gardens.” The Washington Court of Appeals recently confirmed that existing state law legalizes neither medical marijuana nor collective gardens, but merely provides qualified patients and their designated providers with an affirmative defense to criminal prosecutions. Seattle’s unregulated medical marijuana industry can help patients as a stopgap until I-502 stores open, but we must ultimately fold medical marijuana producers and stores into a common statewide regulatory system.

Legitimate medical users have different needs than recreational users, so state law should ensure that stores carry products tailored to patients’ medical needs. SB 5887, which the state Senate — but not the House — passed earlier this year, would have done this, along with a partial tax exemption and higher possession limits. Without SB 5887, and in the absence of a change in state or federal enforcement policy, medical marijuana will likely remain a gray market for at least a year after the first I-502 stores open sometime this summer. The Legislature must enact legislation that comprehensively addresses this issue next year.

4. Countering Local Attempts to Reinstate Prohibition. A number of cities and counties across Washington—some of which voted for I-502—are attempting to ban state-licensed marijuana producers, processers and retailers. This is counterproductive. Instead, cities and counties should regulate I-502 licensees the same way Seattle City Council did last December, with sensible zoning instead of outright bans. I support state legislation that precludes local marijuana bans, as long as cities and counties are still allowed to require reasonable zoning.

Even if the Legislature allows cities and counties to ban I-502 stores, those jurisdictions should at least be required to follow the state’s current laws for going “dry” and banning alcohol sales, which require a petition and vote of the people. Opting out of a statewide voter-approved initiative should, at a minimum, require local voter approval.

I am also disappointed that the Legislature wasn’t willing to share even a small portion of the I-502 tax revenue with cities and counties. Local jurisdictions are  partners with the state in implementing I-502 and enforcing marijuana laws and regulations, and revenue sharing belongs in that partnership, just as it is with alcohol. A fair compromise would be to pair state legislation prohibiting local bans on I-502 licensees with revenue sharing for those jurisdictions where licensed retailers, producers and processers operate. It’s also critically important that I-502’s mandated education, research and treatment programs be implemented without delay. That’s the approach I hope the Legislature pursues next year.

I-502's promise has put new responsibility on all of us. As a pioneer in ending marijuana prohibition, Washington has taken on the responsibility of showing the rest of the country — indeed, the world — that a legal and regulated marijuana market can succeed in reducing the harms of prohibitionist policies and promoting freedom, while maintaining public safety and public health. Passing I-502 was an important first step, but our work is far from done.

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