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Tue., Feb. 12, 2013

Editorial: State’s new pot law still clouded by questions

Now that marijuana has been legalized in Washington state, those interested in becoming legitimate merchants have a lot of questions. But uncertainty on the state and federal levels continues to cloud the future.

On the state level, it isn’t clear how, or if, commercialized marijuana regulations will dovetail with those for medical marijuana since they spring from different ballot initiatives. Medical marijuana poses problems because the law allows for possession, but not acquisition. Legislative efforts to clarify rules have only introduced more complications. As with medical pot, the possession of marijuana allowed for in Initiative 502 runs afoul of federal law, which still holds that marijuana possession is illegal.

We’ve noted many times that Congress needs to address the outdated classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which wrongly suggests it’s as dangerous as heroin and has no medicinal value. But in the meantime, that Nixon-era law is a significant hurdle in states where voters have an up-to-date outlook on pot.

I-502 puts the state Liquor Control Board in charge of drawing up the rules for marijuana producers, processors and retailers. Potential merchants know about the $250 application fee and an annual $1,000 renewal fee for each license, and they know about the background checks and other guidelines spelled out in the ballot measure. But the list of unknowns is daunting.

Can they get a loan or bank account for a business that is deemed illegal by the federal government (which insures all banks)? Will the feds raid their businesses? Will medical marijuana dispensaries be allowed to operate on a separate track that isn’t subject to the 25 percent excise tax? If so, would the possibility of lower prices for non-taxed medical pot harm the market for pot regulated by the Liquor Control Board?

The medical pot question is complicated by the fact that the U.S. attorney’s office in Western Washington has adopted a hands-off enforcement policy, while the Eastern Washington office has raided dispensaries and put several out of business. The Legislature needs to take another stab at guidelines for legitimate dispensaries while weeding out those trying to duck the taxes. Suspicion already runs deep that more than 90 percent of medical marijuana customers on the West Side do not have a medical need.

State officials have met with the U.S. Justice Department to get an idea of how the feds intend to respond when marijuana goes on sale in 2014. No answer has been forthcoming. So while the voters want pot to be legalized, it remains a risky business venture. The Liquor Control Board will hold a hearing 6 p.m. today at the Spokane Convention Center as it works its way around Washington seeking comments on draft rules and regulations for commercial marijuana. Hundreds of people have turned out at three earlier forums (eight are scheduled), many of them would-be business people who are posing questions that are outside the agency’s jurisdiction. But they are excellent questions just the same.

The feds ought to provide some clear answers on their intentions, and the state needs to provide clarity on medical marijuana. The voters have spoken. Now government needs to find ways to honor those wishes.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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