Save marijuana licenses for those who play by the rules

The News TribuneMarch 21, 2013 

The Legislature doesn’t normally amend an initiative within two years of its passage. But the state doesn’t have that kind of time as it makes the rules for the soon-to-arrive legal marijuana industry.

The Liquor Control Board – which will regulate legal pot – has to get it right the first time. That’s why lawmakers should deliver the required two-thirds majority to make necessary tweaks to Initiative 502.

State Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, has proposed an important amendment to the initiative. It would allow the board to charge fair-market rates for the growing, wholesaling and retailing licenses it will distribute.

As written, the initiative virtually gives those permits away. The application fee is a minuscule $250, plus a $1,000 annual renewal cost. Hurst figures, plausibly, that the market could bear up to $25,000 in, say, downtown Bellevue. The state could conceivably collect as much as $50 million the first year.

It would be plain dumb to pass up that kind of money when the Legislature is under court order to fully fund basic education and doesn’t have the revenues to do it.

Just as important, a higher cover charge would increase the odds that legitimate businesses – not underground growers and traffickers accustomed to operating outside the law – would wind up with those licenses.

Some argue that smaller is better, that substantial businesses would be more likely to market marijuana to youth. The opposite is the case. Legitimate businesses have reputations and assets to protect, so they have more incentive not to break the law – including regulations on advertising to minors.

A small-time grower or dealer knows he can slip right back into the underground trade if legality doesn’t work out. If it does work out, he can become a big player himself – with a fat marketing budget – with one of these lucrative permits. They will be licenses to print money.

The black market is not renowned for respecting the law, and it hasn’t been scrupulous about avoiding sales to minors. As Hurst has said, “Why reward bad behavior with a gold mine?”

The same logic applies to “medical” marijuana dealers who’ve partnered with quacks to sell pot to just about anyone who complains about a sore back or knee. Hundreds of them routinely defied the state’s old, absolute ban on selling marijuana – and are now defying the new law ban on selling marijuana without a license. I-502 should be the means of replacing them, not enriching them.

Not all operators of marijuana collective gardens are bad actors. Some of them have made good-faith efforts to play by the rules as they understand them. They’ve honored so-called green cards only from reputable physicians who have not run authorization mills for recreational drug-seekers.

They shouldn’t be categorically excluded from the new industry – but the state should rigorously weed out anyone who has been cavalier about the law. If lawmakers are cavalier themselves about the new industry, I-502’s ostensibly tight regulations will deliver nothing better than the scofflaw status quo.

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