The people of Washington spoke in November; they wanted cannabis to be treated like alcohol, regulated, and taxed accordingly under Initiative 502 (I-502). Why then are three state representatives laying the groundwork to silence Washington voters by encouraging a slowdown of I-502’s implementation?
On January 9, 2013, three House democrats from King County (Chris Hurst of Enumclaw, whose panel oversees cannabis, Ross Hunter of Medina, the lead budget writer, and Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, who leads on taxes) wrote to Washington’s Liquor Control Board (LCB) that the LCB’s timeline for I-502 was too “aggressive,” and that the initiative should be opened up by the Legislature for some significant tweaking.
Specifically, Rep. Hunter was quoted saying that “[t]here is no rush” to issue grower licenses by May 2013. Mr. Hunter needs to realize that if the Legislature putters around in Olympia and delays implementation, contrary to the will of Washington voters, the black market will continue running rampant under the new law, flooding Washington with illegal product, taking advantage of the “less-than-an-ounce, no prosecution” rule. To those in the cannabis industry who want to see I-502 succeed, there is a major sense of urgency to implement the initiative to defeat their criminal competition and to promote a safe and secure industry.
Rep. Hunter continued to say that he “ … [doesn’t] have a problem with legalizing [cannabis]. What [he does have] a problem with is the [LCB] hiring a whole bunch of people [the State doesn’t] have the budget for.” While this may sound reasonable, the best way to recoup costs of implementation is by doing it quickly, not delaying it. There is no way the State of Washington can implement I-502 without significant assistance, which ultimately requires a robust budget, a budget that will inevitably be stimulated and supplemented by future sales of cannabis that these three representatives are apparently trying to delay.
For his part, Rep. Hurst, a former police officer who was anti-I-502, was quoted by the Seattle Times as saying that there are “serious problems” with the initiative. And he wasn’t referring to the controversial green DUI provision or the insane tax rates. Instead, Hurst thinks that issuing licenses at $1,000 a pop is way too low and that a lottery or auction licensing system would be more appropriate anyway because, “[i]f we’re really going to have a free market, we should consider what the market will bear.”
What it looks like under Hurst’s regime is that anyone should be able to grow and that every applicant should pay an arm and a leg to do so. With the state looking to net billions of dollars from cannabis sales in the next five years, it sounds like a recipe for disaster (and wasted tax payer dollars) if any and every applicant with money to burn and no growing experience wins a $20,000 license to grow. Production is difficult; it requires experience and expertise. If Washington licenses producers who are unable to yield enough adequate product to meet demand, the black market will continue to thrive, contrary to the core goal of I-502.
Worse still is that Rep. Hurst also wants to fundamentally change the new law. Despite the red-tape hell that the medical cannabis industry has undergone due to the fact that cities have way too much power over its fate, Rep. Hurst seeks to give municipalities more control under I-502. Municipalities, other than Seattle, have shown with medical cannabis that they do not have the will to implement reasonable business regulations. If Olympia gives them the chance, certain cities will continue to bury their heads in the sand thereby defeating implementation of I-502 in their own right. It is imperative that all regulations and license location mandates come from the state so that municipalities cannot block implementation.
Rep. Hurst also suggested holding off on fully implementing the new law until the Obama Administration indicates how it will respond to I-502, which plays directly into the hands of frightened politicians and conservative attorneys at the Justice Department. I-502 had a number of goals, one of which was to push the federal government to make meaningful changes in federal law. By waiting for federal approval, Rep. Hurst is asking the Legislature and the LCB to let the initiative fail.
Despite all of the foregoing, Washington voters can rest easy for now. Neither Rep. Hurst nor Rep. Hunter will be able to affect I-502 or its implementation schedule unless they can obtain a positive vote to open I-502 from two-thirds of the Legislature — no small task.