Marijuana questions linger, but state will move forward

MUKILTEO — People started coming into the medical marijuana co-op in Mukilteo on Election Day asking the same question: “Can I buy pot now?”

“There’s obviously a bit of confusion,” said Jeremy Kelsey, owner of the Medical Marijuana Patients Network.

His shop only sells to patients who have legal authorization from a doctor or naturopath to use marijuana for specific medical conditions.

The questions continued for Kelsey on Wednesday, the day after Washington voters approved Initiative 502, which taxes and legalizes the sale of an ounce or less of marijuana to anyone 21 years or older.

Under the law, adult possession of recreational marijuana becomes legal Dec. 6. Yet it could take more than a year to establish a legal, statewide system of regulating and licensing producers, distributors and retailers of marijuana, a task delegated to the state’s Liquor Control Board.

That means purchase of recreational use of marijuana is off-limits at medical marijuana shops like Kelsey’s.

More than 1 million Washington voters approved the initiative, passing it by a 55 percent margin. Yet it could still face significant legal challenges before adults can simply walk into a state-licensed shop and buy an ounce of marijuana with the ease of buying a six-pack of beer.

Federal law prohibits the distribution, possession or manufacture of marijuana. Currently the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, in the same category with cocaine and heroin.

Initiative backers, the state’s Liquor Control Board and other state officials are contacting federal officials to try to resolve legal conflicts.

“The good news is we have time for this conversation,” said Pete Holmes, Seattle’s city attorney and one of the initiative’s sponsors. “It’s a year before anything remotely looking like a grow, processing or retail operation will be ready for opening.”

Alison Holcomb, spokeswoman for the Initiative 502 campaign, said her organization is prepared to defend the law if it’s challenged in court.

Hugh Spitzer, who teaches state and federal law at the University of Washington’s law school, said it’s possible that the Department of Justice will seek an injunction against the state’s licensing of marijuana production.

However, its options for opposing the law are limited, Spitzer said. “The federal government does not have the resources to actively police recreational use of marijuana by individuals,” he said. “They don’t have the money. They don’t have staff.”

Voters in Colorado also passed a marijuana legalization law Tuesday, Spitzer noted.

If a few more states pass similar laws, “it will put huge pressure on Congress to take another look at the overall regulatory regimen,” he said.

Rick Steves, who operates a European travel business in Edmonds, and who was an early initiative backer, called approval of the initiative “a historic breakthrough.

“We intend to take our smart law and implement it responsibly,” he said. “We’re not going to abuse the trust of the electorate.”

Steves said he sympathizes with parents who are concerned that passage of the law may send a signal to teens that it’s OK for them to use the drug.

“We’re going to turn a huge black market into a regulated market, which we believe will be better for educating young people about the dangers of drug abuse,” Steves said. “This is not Hemp Fest gone wild.”

Holcomb said that concern over youth marijuana use was one of the most important issues considered by drafters of the initiative.

Some of the money raised through taxes on marijuana will be used to monitor youth attitudes toward marijuana through the state’s Healthy Youth surveys, she said.

Money from marijuana also will be dedicated to proven strategies for preventing youth use and providing drug treatment programs for teens who do, she said.

Marijuana taxes have been designated to monitor the effects of the initiative, she said. If problems arise, a report will be made to the Legislature with recommended solutions, Holcomb said.

Sharon Foster is chairwoman of the three-member Liquor Control Board, which oversees the state agency responsible for enforcing the new law.

Last year, voters approved an initiative to take the state out of the business of selling liquor, which went into effect in June. Retail stores are now allowed to sell liquor.

Teams of state employees will begin working on implementing the rules, enforcement and licensing issues outlined in the initiative, Foster said.

Even without legal challenges, the public shouldn’t expect to see a state-licensed store selling marijuana before 2014, Foster said.

Priority will be given to public safety, she said. “And we will work very hard to reduce the use by kids under 21 and ensure they don’t have easy access to it.”

The new marijuana legalization law is unlike anything that’s been passed elsewhere, yet Foster said the state agency is ready for the challenge.

“If somebody had to be the first state to do it, I’m pleased that it’s Washington,” she said. “I think we’ll do it right.”

The Washington State Liquor Control Board will update its work on Initiative 502 on its website: www.liq.wa.gov.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

Details about Initiative 502

Here are some of the details about Initiative 502, which allows for the recreational use of marijuana. Statewide voters approved the measure Tuesday.

•Anyone 21 or older can possess up to an ounce of marijuana as soon as the law takes effect Dec. 6, although it can’t be legally bought in Washington for another year.

•Marijuana cannot be smoked or consumed in public.

•Portions of the initiative pertaining to driving under the influence and decriminalization of marijuana possession will take effect Dec. 6.

•The state Liquor Control Board must adopt rules for the growing, distribution and selling of marijuana by Dec. 1, 2013.

•The law specifies that marijuana will be taxed at 25 percent at each step when it is grown, sold to wholesalers and then sold in licensed stores. The price, with taxes, including additional state and local taxes, is estimated at about $336 an ounce.

•Marijuana producers, processors and retailers must be licensed. The application fee is $250. The license costs $1,000.

•A processor’s license is required for processing, packaging and labeling marijuana or marijuana products.

•No marijuana licenses will be granted to anyone younger than 21 or to anyone who has not been a state resident for at least three months.

•The license will be granted by the Liquor Control Board. Cities or counties in which the applicant wishes to operate will be notified of the license request. These governments may submit written objections to the proposal.

•No license will be granted for any permits with an address within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, recreation centers, child care centers, public parks, libraries or transit centers.

•The state’s medical marijuana initiative is not affected.

•The amount of money generated for state and local governments by taxing marijuana could be as low as zero and as high as $1.9 billion over five years, according to the state’s Office of Financial Management.

•The five-year costs to state agencies for regulating and enforcing the initiative’s provisions are estimated at $62.9 million.

Source: Washington’s Office of Financial Management and Initiative 502

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