Lawmaker's attempt to amend pot initiative goes into uncharted waters

There are reservations about selling licenses to make money for the state. And amending a new initiative is difficult. But this is the kind of year when surprises could happen.
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Medical marijuana hanging to dry

There are reservations about selling licenses to make money for the state. And amending a new initiative is difficult. But this is the kind of year when surprises could happen.

A conservative Democrat's proposal to amend the state's landmark marijuana initiative is drawing a range of reactions —including a charge of a "bait-and-switch" — but few outright endorsements.

Instead, along with opposition to the proposal, most of those who spoke at a hearing Tuesday in favor of Rep. Chris Hurst's bill voiced mixed feelings over its three-part push. Many at the meeting voiced some level of support for changes to exclusion zones written into the initiative, meant to keep pot businesses away from schools and parks but that ultimately would box stores out of most of Seattle. But many of the same people also voiced opposition — ranging from technical to passionate — to the steep hike in fees indirectly proposed in the amendment.

Keith Hensen, director of Pierce County NORML, said the proposal, was actually "a rewriting of the initiative ... that amounts to asking the Legislature to pull a bait-and-switch on the voters." The Pierce County group is part of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Unveiling the proposal last week, Hurst, an Enumclaw Democrat, presented it as a package of technical fixes, albeit with a big budget impact. Two of the three main changes in the bill fit that description: shrinking the buffer zone around places where minors congregate to 500 feet from the 1000-foot rule in Initiative 502, and giving the state Liquor Control Board authority to impose stiffer penalties on rule breakers than the initiative originally allowed.

The more expansive buffer zone was identified by Hurst and others earlier this month as a potential problem — maps shown in the media at the time showed large swaths of Seattle where no stores could exist under the law.

But it was the third change, the most sweeping in the bill, that raised the ire of Hensen and others at the meeting: a proposal to add a master license for anyone in the business, let businesses re-sell it, and require the board to get as much money for it as possible, likely by a competitive bidding process.

In the original initiative, license fees were capped at $1,000, along with a $250 application fee, but Hurst said he sees no reason that the state shouldn't make as much money off the licenses as possible. Hurst has specifically mentioned that some people would be willing to pay as much as a quarter-million dollars for the licenses.

Additionally, Hurst said, he didn't see any reason to pander to small businesses. Repeating statements he made the week before, Hurst Tuesday presented the marijuana market as a set of polar opposites: tax-paying growers on one side, doing their best to comply with the law, and armed criminals using violence to dominate the blackmarket.

Hurst said he didn't think that every license would necessarily be expensive under his proposal. While those in places like Seattle likely would be, he acknowledged, licenses for remote towns like Forks and Hoquiam might stay cheap. Legitimate business owners, Hurst said, would have no problem raising the money to pay the higher fees.

After Hurst's remarks, Alison Holcomb, the initiative's original author, pushed back. Holcomb said she had specifically written the low fees into the initiative with small businesses in mind — and that boosting them too high, too early could backfire.

"If we're auctioning the licenses off, there's no guarantee that that's clean money," Holcomb said. Instead, she said, the reverse might happen: The biggest dealers, and the best at hiding the source of their money, might be the only ones able to afford a license.

A market dominated by a few big growers could also create problems of its own, Holcomb warned. Noting that the federal government had mostly ignored small growers who followed state medical marijuana laws, Holcomb said she originally wrote the initiative to be small-business friendly to help the state avoid the wrath of Washington, D.C. Bigger companies also have bigger budgets, Holcomb said. Noting that the alcohol and tobacco industries are today dominated by big corporations (with big advertising budgets) that depend on addicted users for much of their income, Holcomb said the state also had a public health interest in encouraging a market made of smaller companies.

"It's better if we make these licenses as available as possible," Holcomb said. Especially if high license fees drive up the cost of legal pot, she added, small growers unable to access the legal market would likely just keep growing — and supplying a black market.

While many at the hearing voiced support for the technical fixes in the amendment, especially some changes to the buffer zones around parks, schools, and other kid-heavy areas, few voiced complete support of the amendment. Even liquor control board deputy administrative director Rick Garza, who represented the agency at the hearing, voiced concerns, saying the agency would likely keep the license fees low to begin with even if the amendment passed. And he worried about provoking federal officials by shrinking the buffer around schools.

One of the few who did voice complete support was Bill Brouillet, CEO of Diego Pellicer (which bills itself as the first U.S. "retail brand focused exclusively on legal, premium marijuana). He expressed hopes to set up high-end marijuana shops the region. Brouillet said he didn't see a reason licenses in a rural area should cost as much as those in cities — or that licenses in cities should be cheap. "We support a much higher fee in areas like Seattle," he said. 

Hurst's amendment faces a tough road to actually becoming law. The state consititution contains strong protections for initiatives within their first two years as law. During that time, any change requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the state government, rather than the simple majority required of normal proposals.

With fractious infighting having already scuttled a number of popular bills — including drone and gun control measures with broad support — the fate of an amendment to such a hot topic bill is far from certain. At least one legislator had made up their mind when Hurst's amendment was just a rumor - Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, leader of the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition in the Senate, said at the start of the session that he would categorically not support any amendment to the initiative.

Then again, in a year of massive budget shortfalls and a Supreme Court order to give more money to basic education, the smell of money may be enough to tempt even the stalwart.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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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