September 4, 2013 in Region

Legal Washington pot could be available by June

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Marijuana plants growing at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary in 2012 in Seattle.
(Full-size photo)

OLYMPIA — Adults might be able to buy marijuana that’s legally grown in Washington by next June under rules given tentative approval today.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board, the agency setting up a system for growing, processing and selling recreational marijuana under an initiative passed by voters last November, approved proposed rule changes on the overall size of the state’s marijuana crop, the number of licenses and amount of the drug the licensees can have on hand. The changes now go to a pair of hearings — one to be set in Spokane — in early October.

“We have done something that is making history,” Chairwoman Sharon Foster said.

If no other changes are required after the board receives comments at those hearings, the board is scheduled to give them final approval in mid October and begin accepting license applications in December and awarding them in March. The amount of time required to grow, process and ship marijuana suggests stores would open June 1st, Foster said.

The federal government removed one major barrier last week, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would not try to stop Washington and Colorado, where voters also have legalized recreational marijuana, from setting up their systems.

But other obstacles remain.

The board has set limits on the number of stores that can operate in each county and large city. But some Washington counties and cities have passed moratoriums that currently block marijuana businesses from operating within their boundaries. The agency will issue licenses to prospective businesses in those locations, but it will be up to the license holder to challenge the local government’s restriction.

Chris Marr, a board member, said many local governments are primarily concerned about running afoul of federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a drug illegal for all uses. The memo last week from the Justice Department may allay some of those concerns, he said, and a review of the state’s tight rules for security and restrictions against sales to children may also help.

“Early on, there may be some access problems,” Marr said.

The agency also faces a legal challenge from a coalition representing medical marijuana operations that contends it has not followed state environmental laws in setting up its regulations. That challenge has a hearing in Thurston County Superior Court next week.

Among the changes to rules given tentative approval today are limits of three licenses for any person in any of the main categories — growing, processing or retailing. A person can hold three growing licenses and three processing licenses, but growers or processors will not be able to hold any retailing licenses.

Limiting the number of licenses is a way to keep the market from being dominated “by a few larger players,” Marr said. It should also encourage the stores to be dispersed throughout the state.

The board also set the limit on the number of retail licenses it will grant for the state at 334, and limits on the number of retail licenses in each county and many cities. There would be 18 total licenses available in Spokane County, with eight in the city of Spokane, three in the city of Spokane Valley and 7 “at large” locations elsewhere in the county.

Stores must be at least 1,000 feet away from a school, playground, child care center or publicly owned recreation center. But in a proposed change given tentative approval today, that distance will not be calculated in a straight line or “as the crow flies” but on the normal route of travel using streets and sidewalks. That is expected to increase the number of locations where stores could be located.

The new proposed rules set a limit for the amount of recreational marijuana to be produced in the state at 40 metric tons per year, or just over 88,000 pounds. They set a limit for the size of the state’s legal crop at 2 million square feet, or about 46 acres. Marijuana growers will be ranked by size into different tiers, but no licensee will be able to grow plants on more than 30,000 square feet — about two-thirds of an acre.

Jeremy Moberg of the Okanogan Cannabis Association said such caps favor indoor growers, who can get four or five crops a year, over outdoor operations that can produce one or two. But indoor grows use more energy and have greater pollution problems than outdoor grows, Moberg said.

The sizes are so small that most growers will try to maximize their yields, which can lead to bad environmental practices, too, Moberg said. The agency previously said it would allow outdoor grows as a way of mitigating the energy and pollution concerns over indoor growing operations, but the new rules favor indoor growers so much that the agency may need to develop an environmental impact statement, he said.


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