OLYMPIA – As Washington develops rules for its new recreational marijuana industry, even the most casual observer might be hard pressed to argue this change isn’t significant.
We’re going to declare a truce in one theater of the War on Drugs, after all, and pull out of a long-standing alliance with Uncle Sam.
We’re going to let folks grow and sell pot if they follow a long list of rules and regs, file their paperwork, keep kids away from the plants in the fields and the brownies in the stores. And pay their taxes, of course, even if they may have to hire armored cars to haul stacks of slightly aromatic bills into the Department of Revenue office.
So it may surprise some that the Washington State Liquor Control Board last month filed a “Determination of Nonsignificance,” or DNS, for the new system of rules it is putting together for legal marijuana.
A DNS, for those unfamiliar with state laws, doesn’t mean nothing at all significant will happen. It means the likely impacts are so low the agency can skip a time-consuming environmental impact statement under the state Environmental Protection Act.
The board “has determined that it does not have a probable significant adverse impact on the environment,” staff attorney Ingrid Mungia wrote in filing the DNS paperwork, which started a 14-day clock ticking for anyone to appeal.
After decades of marijuana supporters waxing rhapsodic about the salubrious nature of their favorite plant, one might expect that the agency would find no objections to such a statement, at least not from the cannabis community. One would be wrong.
Members of the medical marijuana sector have filed a series of objections, noting some environmental impacts they believe the control board is overlooking. Among them:
• If we’re going to be growing lots of marijuana indoors, that’s going to take electricity, adding to the region’s power needs.
• When you grow marijuana indoors, it’s often with hydroponics, which requires a significant amount of water to maintain. What goes in as clean water comes out as some pretty nasty waste.
• If you grow marijuana in large fields outdoors – which the agency recently said would be allowed – there could be a time when some plants could be releasing large amounts of pollen in the air. The security fences required to keep thieves out won’t keep the pollen in.
Without going too deeply into the botanical details, marijuana growers trying to maximize their yields cull out the pollen-producing male plants as early as possible, so the female plants produce more good stuff. But if some state legislators succeed in legalizing hemp as a new agricultural crop in Washington, there could be big problems. Hemp and marijuana are varieties of the cannabis plant, but the qualities that make hemp valuable hurt marijuana, and vice versa. Cross-pollination could lead to some marijuana farmers winding up with a crop worth bupkiss and some hemp farmers with unlicensed marijuana in their fields the following year.
“They can’t say there’s no environmental impact,” said Steve Sarich, of Cannacare, a supporter of medical marijuana but an opponent of legalized recreational use. Such omissions mean the agency should put the rule-making process on hold while it conducts an environmental impact statement, he said.
Ezra Eickmeyer, of the Washington Cannabis Association, agrees there will be some environmental impacts to legal growing operations. They could be positive, he said, if illegal operations go legal and get out of what he described as an energy-intensive, high-pollution industry.
“Right now, it couldn’t get any dirtier,” Eickmeyer said. To clean things up, the association backs a wide range of environmental farming practices as well as biodegradable packaging and carbon offsets for high-energy indoor grows. The agency should get the system up and running now, he said, “but in the long term, we should have an EIS.”
If the state does need an EIS, it might not be able to wait. If it does an EIS, it almost certainly can’t meet the requirement of Initiative 502 for licenses to grow, process and sell marijuana to be available by December. Deciding whether one law trumps another is something a court could be asked to decide.
Hmm. The state’s legal marijuana system could wind up in court. Who would’ve ever guessed that could happen?