OLYMPIA — Washington needs 222 more stores to sell marijuana to handle the demand for medical marijuana, the state agency that regulates the drug was told Wednesday.
Staff for the Liquor and Cannabis Board recommended the state increase the number of retail marijuana licenses it will allow to 556 from the current cap of 334 stores. The state has only licensed 220 stores so far, and a few of those aren’t yet open for business, but the number of issued licenses grows almost every week.
But the additional stores eventually will be needed because the Legislature this year decided to merge medical and recreational marijuana systems.
After voters approved Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana for adults in Washington, the board set a limit of 334 licenses spread throughout the state based roughly on population in cities and counties, a system similar to the number of state liquor stores before voters took the state out of the wholesale and retail liquor business.The board also set a limit for the amount of land that could be planted to recreational marijuana, which is the sole source of the drug for the state-licensed stores.
But medical marijuana, approved by voters in 1998, was largely unregulated and had developed a separate system of unlicensed dispensaries that were free from the heavy taxes imposed on recreational marijuana. Supporters said they were the best place to find the particular strains needed to treat a specific malady, but critics said they were prone to abuse by selling the drug to people with questionable medical needs.
Earlier this year the Legislature brought medical marijuana under the state board, which allows recreational stores to obtain an endorsement to serve medical patients, and some 70 percent have done that, the board said. The new licenses for medical marijuana stores will be awarded through a system that gives first priority to those who applied for a retail license before July 1, 2014 and operated a collective garden before 2013, have the necessary business licenses and a history of paying taxes.
The second priority who had applied for a license more recently but operated a collective garden before 2013 and have necessary license and a history of paying taxes. The third priority would be anyone else applying for a license.
The board did not vote on the new numbers Wednesday, but is expected to approve emergency rules for licensing medical marijuana operations in early January.
The agency currently has nearly 1,200 retail license applications. Of those, 92 would meet the first priority and 42 the second priority.