November 8, 2012 in City

Marijuana initiative creates opportunity, questions

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Dominic Tietge checks out the selection of merchandise Wednesday at Discount Smoke on North Division in Spokane.
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Despite what the Bob Marley posters might suggest, John Kim’s family business is all about tobacco.

Cigars and hookahs. Cigarettes and lighters. Pipes shaped like dolphins, horses and motorcycles, ranging in price from $5 to $500.

But with voters this week approving Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana in Washington, Kim and his parents and siblings, who own Discount Smoke on North Division and three other smoke shops in Spokane, are starting to talk about what a legal marijuana industry could do for their business.

“There’s always a risk for a business to get into that kind of a field,” Kim said.

Especially so, he said, because the federal government hasn’t decriminalized marijuana. Without that, it won’t matter if states legalize it; the investment would be too big of a risk.

That same sticking point has law enforcement in limbo.

The initiative passed this week creates a state-run system for producing, distributing and consuming marijuana recreationally, which is expected to take up to a year to implement. Only marijuana approved through the state system will be legal, so any form of the drug until then will still be considered contraband.

Enforcement

Even when marijuana is available under the initiative, law enforcement and legal experts warn there will be limitations similar to those associated with alcohol.

“Although possession (may become) legal, driving while impaired always has and continues to be illegal,” said Bob Calkins, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol.

From a traffic enforcement standpoint, he said, little will change if marijuana possession is legal, because driving under its influence will still be outlawed.

While officers can obtain a search warrant to take a person’s blood to test it for drugs, they can also make arrests based on failed sobriety tests and other observed factors like erratic driving accompanied by the odor of marijuana.

Jack Driscoll, chief criminal deputy Spokane County prosecutor, said the passage of the law has several local prosecutors trying to figure out how to proceed. But, he said, one thing is certain: Nothing will change quickly.

Driscoll said he expects the state to take more than a year to set up the framework for how the law will allow residents to purchase and possess marijuana. Washington residents 21 and older can’t just start carrying small amounts of marijuana at the first of the year.

“The only thing that is legal is selling marijuana through those stores,” Driscoll said. “That will be regulated by the state. You can’t under this initiative have an ounce of marijuana that doesn’t come from a state-issued provider. You still can’t have black-market marijuana.”

The bigger question, Driscoll said, is how federal authorities will react. State regulators “have immunity under state law, but that doesn’t affect federal statutes,” he said.

Driscoll expects to meet this week with his fellow deputy prosecutors to discuss the topic.

Local concerns

On the city level, Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder said he’s concerned that the city isn’t prepared for the major shift in the law.

He’s proposing that the council form a committee to examine the law and suggest if further regulations are needed.

“It’s time to sit down with the text of the initiative and find out where the policy holes are,” he said.

Snyder, who didn’t take a public position on the initiative, said the proposal approved by voters was thoughtful but that he still has concerns about a proliferation of locations selling pot. He said the City Council should consider zoning regulations.

As a businessman, 37-year-old Kim said he believes legalizing marijuana would cut down significantly on the black market production, as well as the use of similar drugs like synthetic marijuana, which is often laced with dangerous chemicals.

“People were going that way because the natural stuff was illegal,” Kim said.

The overall economic impact would be substantial, Kim said, particularly for small businesses like his.

The industry is “going to grow, as long as they control it,” he said.

Some controls are already built into the law. For example, the initiative stipulates that those interested in producing or distributing the product pay $250 to apply for a license and then another $1,000 a year to purchase and renew the license.

Also, the businesses could not be within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or recreation center.

Employers

Allowing marijuana use does present practical challenges, however, particularly for human resources departments at companies that require drug testing.

Dave Black, a Seattle lawyer who focuses on employment law, said companies are not looking to change their policies.

“Alcohol is also lawful, has been lawful, but if you use it in contravention of your employer’s substance abuse policy, you can be disciplined,” Black said.

However, the change in the law might lead to an increase of people violating policies, he said. He encourages employers to educate their employees about company policy even when criminal charges aren’t a factor.

“Whether you can be criminally prosecuted doesn’t have a bearing on whether jobs have to put up with it,” he said.

Staff writers Jonathan Brunt and Thomas Clouse contributed to this report.


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