We must get it right on implementation of legal marijuana

February 8, 2013 

In the 2012 election, voters took a historic step towards changing the war on drugs in Washington state in regards to marijuana. As the Liquor Control Board began to examine how to implement this new system, some advocates have said that Washington needs to do this right, and quickly.

The state must get it right, certainly. But a careful and deliberate approach should allow for the time necessary to create a regulated legal market which extinguishes the illegal one that exists today. That is what the voters were promised throughout the 2012 election.

The greatest misconception is that I-502 is a Prohibition-style end to the marijuana industry, that our state will fall effortlessly into a well-regulated market. That simply is not the case.

When America outlawed alcohol, the industry, rules and regulations did not disappear – they just went dormant. The liquor business was taken over by outlaws operating a criminal market. But when Americans reversed their decision on prohibition, the means of extinguishing the organized crime rackets were already in place. Rules were dusted off and factories turned back on.

Marijuana legalization is not the same as the end of Prohibition. There has never been a legal, organized and regulated market for marijuana in the United States. We are now tasked with building one from the ground up, and this requires careful and well-thought-out implementation.

Anyone working in the recreational marijuana industry before I-502 fully goes into effect is operating a criminal enterprise. In the past, these individuals have spent years enjoying the benefits of a civilized society without ever paying taxes or contributing to society the way that you or I do. They never played by the rules; we should not expect them to do so now.

Criminal behavior is a lifestyle, and ending crime in the marijuana industry requires a rigorous assessment of how to enforce the rules that voters were promised in this brand new market. The Liquor Control Board should consider this carefully when handing out licenses.

Voters were promised a tightly regulated market with an emphasis on public safety. To deliver, we need to empower the Liquor Control Board to crack down on licensees who violate criminal codes – particularly distributing marijuana to minors. The initiative sets fines at $1,000, far lower than those for many liquor violations.

Voters were promised that this new industry would be taxed at levels similar to alcohol and tobacco. I-502 charges just $250 for an application and $1,000 a year for a license to manufacture, process or distribute marijuana. Processing an application will cost far more than the current cap, however, and in Colorado, licenses for medical marijuana sold for as much as $18,000.

As we saw last year when the state auctioned off liquor stores and alcohol distribution rights, legitimate business interests are willing to pay far more. We should maximize new revenue and establish license fees at actual market value.

Voters were promised that the product would be readily available to interested adults. Yet the current restrictions of I-502 prohibit marijuana from being sold in most of Seattle, except small portions of the Sodo District. To preempt a criminal market, we need to offer marijuana where legitimate demand exists. We must also find a way to end the all-cash market so customers can use bank credit cards. This will result in proper, auditable record-keeping and not tempt armed robberies.

Voters were promised in campaign ads that I-502 would generate “new revenue for education,” but in truth more than eight out of every 10 dollars in revenue are earmarked for other programs, and nothing was set aside specifically for education. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in McCleary makes funding our K-12 system more of an imperative than ever before. Let’s fulfill the campaign promises and fund education.

We should take a small step back and evaluate how to best establish and regulate this new market. Doing so will not unduly delay the establishment of outlets, nor access to the buying public. It will just help ensure that our system – literally the first in the world – lives up to the voters’ intentions: safe and legal marijuana for recreational use, a carefully regulated market that protects public safety, and new revenue for education and health care.

State Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, is chairman of the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee with jurisdiction over the implementation of I-502. He has served in the Legislature for 10 years.

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