THURSDAY, JAN. 23, 2014

Editorial: Local bans on pot sales violate spirit of initiative

The first three weeks of marijuana shopping in Colorado belie the freak-out occurring in some communities in Washington.

“No problems: All is relatively mellow as customers wait hours in long lines,” said a headline in the Denver Post after the first day of sales. Colorado is the only other state to have legalized marijuana. Stores opened on New Year’s Day.

Foes feared rampant public dope smoking, dangerous driving and national derision for the Rocky Mountain state. Instead, those worries went the way of Y2K, the millennial meltdown that never materialized. The mood was jovial and purchasers were well-behaved.

The most trenchant comment came from Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, who told the Post, “There are adults buying marijuana in every state today. The only one where it is legal is here.”

It’s unfortunate how many people lose sight of the fact that marijuana is going to be purchased regardless of its legal status. Yet city councils and county commissions in Washington are erecting bans on pot businesses before opening day, which could come as soon as May or June. The Yakima City Council did so on Tuesday. The Yakima County Commission appears ready to follow suit. Pierce County banned outlets in the unincorporated areas, and the Clark County Commission is considering copying that ordinance, which wouldn’t allow for the sale of marijuana until the federal government makes it legal. Wenatchee is also among dozens of communities that have passed bans or moratoriums.

Last week, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued an opinion saying local bans were not a violation of Initiative 502. The issue will probably land in the courts. If bans are upheld, it would be a blow to the Liquor Control Board, which has been charged with implementing legal marijuana sales.

A consultant to the board had predicted legal pot would take 13 percent of the market initially, rising to 25 percent at year’s end. The high taxes (25 percent at each stage of the process – production, processing and sales) will compel some buyers to stay in the black market. Local prohibitions will further enrich illegal dealers.

The Legislature is considering two bills to deal with this. One would withhold liquor-sale revenue from communities that ban pot. That’s too harsh because much of that money finances worthwhile programs. Another bill, HB 2144, would set aside 30 percent of the state’s proceeds from marijuana sales and send it to communities that are complying with the wishes of Initiative 502 voters. This is the more logical response to local bans, but it would require two-thirds majorities in each legislative body because it amends a recently passed initiative.

It would’ve been better if over-anxious community leaders had kicked back, watched events in Colorado and let this experiment unfold. Now, the state must find a way to keep this initiative on track.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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