Comment: State’s decade of retail cannabis a work in progress

It brings in $1 billion a year in tax revenue, but the industry needs regulation that’s fair and barriers removed.

By Vicki Christophersen / For The Herald

Washington’s voters approved the first legal adult use marketplace for cannabis in 2012. Despite industry progress, there is work ahead.

After learning the cannabis industry generates more than $1 billion per biennium in state excise tax revenue some people absorb no additional information at the peril of not recognizing all that’s at stake. The last ten years should have imbued Washington’s industry with the experience to succeed as veterans. But the reality is that the advantage of our pioneering status has dwindled, and the limitations of our policymaking are clear. Washington may have been first, but its cannabis laws, some of the most restrictive in the country, are not yet designed for the long run.

On Nov. 6, 2012, Washington voters decisively concluded that a new way of approaching the so-called War on Drugs was necessary. Too late, we have come to understand that the burden of that failed war was disproportionately borne on the shoulders of Black and Brown men and that the illicit market continued to thrive while families suffered the arrest and incarceration of their loved ones. The state’s work to create a legal marketplace for cannabis is a foundational step in any effort to end the harms of the War on Drugs, but it’s far from over. Social equity in the cannabis industry wasn’t considered adequately and remains a work in progress, even as important funding sources from the Legislature move forward.

There is ongoing lack of respect for the regulated industry while clinging to stereotypes and Hollywood versions of what is portrayed about getting rich or getting high from cannabis. Prohibition is embedded into societal thinking. Some have asked lawmakers to prohibit the sale of certain legal cannabis products, ignoring that they were available long before the creation of the regulated marketplace. Unfortunately, outside of the law, processing these products can be dangerous, resulting in explosions from Spokane Valley to Bellevue. Full circle return to prohibition will do nothing more than increase demand in the ongoing illicit marketplace that will take a toehold every place it can get one and has no concern for safety or checking IDs.

Minors are not purchasing weed in the legal marketplace. Washington’s regulated cannabis businesses have a 92 percent compliance rate for keeping products out of the hands of those younger than 21, making retail cannabis stores significantly more successful at barring youth access than businesses selling alcohol (77 percent) and tobacco (80 percent). According to the Healthy Youth Survey, only 7 percent of high school sophomores reported recent cannabis usage in 2021, down from 18 percent in 2018. But they’re getting it somewhere, many of you are thinking as you read this; indeed, some are. Without question, additional investments in enforcement against the illicit market and campaigns to further dissuade youth from using cannabis are required.

There is a public health and safety risk to drugs created in the dark and sold on the street. We miss the point yet again when we do not accept that a heavilyregulated industry that directly and indirectly employs 18,350 taxpayers does not equate an anything-goes attitude toward drugs.

In cannabis, there are as many opportunities as there are warnings. Among policy priorities, Washington adopted testing requirements restricting pesticide usage to better prioritize consumer safety, an effort strongly supported by the members of our trade organization representing license-holders in Washington. State lawmakers are advancing legislation making it easier for adults to purchase low-THC products, a proposal reflecting modern consumer preferences.

Other promising proposals include handing-off local control of retail advertising, and a bill that would clarify that no products containing THC are allowed outside of the legal, regulated marketplace. Unfortunately, legislation to remove barriers to license-holders that restricts access to capital from out of state failed to advance this year, despite approval from two Senate committees. This current restriction is a unique anti-cannabis policy on the books only in Washington and Alaska, severely undermining the ability to invest in workers or compete with multi-state brands. Additional practical ideas, like allowing the governor to enter into interstate agreements for cannabis commerce should federal prohibition end while our Legislature is out-of-session, are also currently under consideration by the Legislature.

Washingtonians went first in ending a prohibition that created significant harm and failed to protect public safety and health. For some, the past ten years have been long enough to forget the failure and stigma of anti-cannabis policies. For others, it has been an opportunity to learn more about how a safe, quality-controlled and taxed marketplace is a better approach for cannabis where our margin to lead exists but grows smaller every day.

Vicki Christophersen is the executive director and lobbyist for the Washington CannaBusiness Association, the industry association in Washington State representing licensed cannabis producers, processors, retailers, and transporters operating in the legal cannabis marketplace.

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