Pot: A lot of unanswered questions

At a first legislative hearing on marijuana legalization, the questions ran ahead of the answers.
Crosscut archive image.
At a first legislative hearing on marijuana legalization, the questions ran ahead of the answers.

Washington lawmakers want to know what the state's new pot market is going to look like.

The areas of contention in Washington's new marijuana law began to take public shape for the first time Monday, as state senators got their first chance to formally question the agency charged with regulating the new drug market.

While many of the questions Monday were relatively innocuous, the subtext of the hearing was clear: Lawmakers, who were not involved with the drafting of the initiative, are as uncertain as anyone about the shape new market — now a virtual certainty — is going to take.

Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, asked officials from Washington's Liquor Control Board where it will be sold: "It's not going to be going into drugstores is it?"

State liquor control deputy director Rick Garza assured Carrell it won't. Instead, he explained, the law allows the drug only to be sold in dedicated, freestanding stores, which can only sell marijuana and marijuana-related items. Children, teens and anyone under 21 years old would not be allowed to enter the stores, Garza said, and security would be like it had been in the liquor stores.

"It's fashioned very much like the old liquor stores," Garza said.

"The sad thing is, there won't be any farm stands," said Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle. Although the senators cracked a few more jokes throughout the hearing — Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, asked if Colorado, the only other state to legalze the drug, would be adopting John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" as the state song — most of the questions were serious.

Would it be possible for individual cities or counties to declare themselves drug-free? What's the risk of the federal government siezing the potentially lucrative proceeds from the market as proceeds from an illegal enterprise, leaving the state on the hook? Would the board be adopting measures to turn away pot "tourists"? Is there an easy roadside test for marijuana intoxication, like there is for alcohol?

The answer to many of the questions was that the board doesn't know yet. 

Unlike liquor laws, which allow individual counties to vote themselves alcohol-free, there is no such provision in the marijuana laws, Garza said. But Garza hastened to add, the board is working with the state attorney general to determine whether counties could do the same thing with their zoning laws.

The federal government hasn't spoken directly to the issue of individual states' marijuana laws yet, Garza said. But letting pot out of the state, either by encouraging pot tourism or by growing too much, Garza said, would be more likely to attract the attention of the federal government.

Garza was joined in the half-full hearing room by state Liquor Control Board head Sharon Foster and Pat Kohler, the agency's administrative director.

As to roadside testing, Kohler said she hasn't heard of anything besides a blood test that can give a definitive answer.

The board, Foster said, is aware the whole world is watching.

"I think we have experience to do this right," she said. "We have to do this right."

The most contentious issues, said Allison Holcomb, the lawyer author of the first draft of the initiative, are likely to be what size marijuana farms are allowed and where retail outlets will be allowed.

Ben Livingstone, a Seattle marijuana activist with the Cannabis Defense Coalition, gained notice earlier this month for a map he made showing where retail outlets could be sited under the new law. The new law requires outlets be 1,000 feet from schools, transit centers, and video game arcades.

According to his estimates, at least 95 percent of the land in Washington urban areas is off-limits under the law, Livingstone said.

Holcomb had also previously said she was worried about the risk of small businesses being priced out of the market by costly requirements enacted by the control board, such as for expensive security layouts.

After the meeting, Garza said that although the board has not so far been specifically working to keep costs down for small business owners, he does not think they will be too high.

"You want it to be fair," Garza said, adding that micro breweries and distilleries are able to compete in the market for alcohol. That kind of competition, Garza said, is reasonable to expect in the marijuana market as well.

Still, board chair Foster said, not everyone who wants to be able to get a license will be able to get one.

"We're going to have unhappy people," Foster said. 

Whether the licenses will be resellable or transferable to family members is something the board hasn't decided yet, Foster said. No matter what, she said, their will be waiting lists.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at http://www.tom-james.net