“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
As Washington State and the Greater Seattle area continue to prepare for the legal marijuana business made possible by 2012′s Initiative 502, lawmakers and prospective business owners struggle with the nitty-gritty of recreational but regulated pot. In the past month, the Washington State Liquor Control Board and Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes, one of I-502′s chief authors and sponsors, have requested changes to the state’s pot policies in anticipation of problems with everything from insufficient access to insufficient supply.
Most recently, Holmes wrote a letter to the Washington State Liquor Control Board asking for an increase in the number of dispensary licenses offered in 2014. The WSLCB is in charge of regulating recreational marijuana in Washington, which includes managing taxes on marijuana products and issuing marijuana-related business licenses, among other responsibilities. Under the current plan, the board will issue 21 dispensary licenses for the Greater Seattle area at the beginning of 2014. Holmes is concerned that local demand for pot will be too much for those 21 dispensaries to handle, so he has asked the board to consider issuing additional licenses later in the year if this proves true.
Holmes’s main concern as Seattle’s chief litigator is, as he states in his letter to the Board, is “…that the illegal market will fill the gaps and defeat the purposes of establishing a taxed and regulated recreational marijuana market.” Washington and Colorado, the only other state with legal recreational marijuana laws, have been under increased scrutiny by the federal government over drug enforcement in the past year. Raids of medical marijuana dispensaries by the Drug Enforcement Administration have continued. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice recently expressed a willingness to allow Washington and Colorado to attempt implementing their legalization plans, provided that the states demonstrate the ability to curtail illegal drug sales and selling marijuana to minors.
For Washington’s marijuana regulators, determining things like demand and black market prices is far from an exact science. By its very nature, as an illegally-sold product, factually certain statistics of use and patterns of purchase for marijuana don’t exist. Time magazine reports that Washington’s demand for marijuana is approximately 187,000 pounds per year, while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claims that roughly 6 percent of Americans use marijuana in any given month.
Compounding this problem for the Seattle area, the City had a policy against prosecuting simple marijuana possession as early as 2009, making it difficult to collect data about Seattle’s black market for pot.
Holmes’s concern over supply and demand may not even have historical precedent to back it up. Marijuana legalization and regulation in Holland, one of the most thoroughly studied historical cases of legalization in the world, shows a stabilizing trend, and even a reduction in overall marijuana use following legalization. A 2001 paper written by Dirk J. Korf of the University of Amsterdam, and presented at that year’s Hearing of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, captures the peaks and valleys of pot use in Holland between the 1960s and the late 1990s. Korf’s paper indicates that the country’s initial legalization in 1976 ultimately reduced overall pot use, and only spiked years later when it became legal for some cafés to sell marijuana products in places like Amsterdam.
In Washington, only licensed dispensaries will have the right to sell marijuana products. There are no plans to expand that right to other business formats at this time. As for where Seattle’s legal dispensaries will operate, that is still very much an open question. The Liquor Control Board and Seattle City Council have been addressing questions for nearly a year surrounding legal zoning for dispensaries. There has been an ongoing fight between the City and the Port of Seattle about using large tracts of industrial property on the south end to house Seattle’s pot business, with some on the City Council attempting to reach a compromise that would still permit marijuana cultivation and sale in the area, but in much smaller spaces than originally afforded by I-502.
This week, the City Council passed a bill that significantly reduced the size of commercial growing space in many of Seattle’s major industrial zones, and effectively prohibits commercial growing in residential zones, with the exception of communal gardens intended for medical marijuana users. Other potential zones, like the block of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, could concentrate Seattle’s marijuana business in highly condensed areas. The specific rules for Washington’s recreational marijuana business will be approved, rejected or altered by the Liquor Control Board on October 16.