Washington State Marijuana About to Die

March 27, 2015

 

WASHINGTON’S experiment with legal recreational marijuana is “teetering on the brink” of a market failure. That is the candid assessment of Hayden Woodard, a state-licensed grower in Dallesport who hasn’t given himself a paycheck in a year.

 

It’s not just him. A stream of state-licensed marijuana operators recently testified in Olympia about how overregulation and unequal competition from unregulated medical-marijuana dispensaries are jeopardizing Initiative 502, the landmark legalization measure passed in 2012.

 

The Washington CannaBusiness Association says I-502’s unwieldy structure is forcing applicants to give up on licenses, or even close shop.

 

Added to these pressures is the fact that about 100 cities and counties have either banned or imposed moratoriums on state-licensed marijuana stores, empowering street-corner dealers and unlicensed dispensaries.

 

The state Legislature must fix these gaps in I-502. It punted on that task last year. But this session a pair of omnibus reform bills have bipartisan support and are working through the legislative sausage grinder of Olympia. Lawmakers must not lose that momentum.

 

A paramount goal must be to fold the unregulated medical-marijuana market into the state-licensed system without limiting access to patients with legitimate health-care needs for cannabis. The state Senate has already passed a bill to do so, SB 5052, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. That bill is now queued up for vote on the House floor.

 

That law creates a voluntary registry for legitimate patients, entitling them to a tax break at recreational stores. Some patient advocates decry this as infringement on privacy, which it is. But Washington is the only medical marijuana state in the country without a registry. A registry, which includes the authorizing doctor’s name, would help clamp down on abuses that have made “medical” marijuana become a wink-and-a-nod euphemism for recreational use for some people.

 

A second bill, SSHB 2136, sponsored by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, changes I-502 to make it more workable for would-be recreational users. It allows cities — particularly Seattle — to shrink overly large buffer zones so that more licensed recreational stores could be sited in the state’s densest neighborhoods. Seattle wants more licensed pot stores to squeeze out the black market.

 

One of the most contentious proposals is to give cities and counties a cut — up to $20 million a year — of the marijuana taxes if municipalities open their borders to I-502. Absent this incentive, some cities have been reluctant to allow licensed retailers and growers. Lawmakers should consider this a means to an end of undercutting the black market.

 

Together, the bills are estimated to boost state marijuana tax revenues by more than $120 million a year. Legalization shouldn’t be just about tax revenue, but it helps fund drug treatment, health care and schools.

 

Marijuana legalization is one of the biggest shifts in public policy in decades. Washington is a leader. Lawmakers need to act to make sure it doesn’t die on the vine.

 

 

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