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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Marijuana

Two years of legal marijuana mean revenue, but unexpected hurdles

Two years ago this weekend, pot became legal in Washington.

Only for adults, only when consumed in private and only if it was grown, processed and sold by state-licensed stores. But while some two dozen states allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes under some conditions, Washington went into the vanguard, with Colorado, by saying it could be consumed legally just for the fun of it.

Legalizing recreational marijuana did not turn Washington into a statewide version of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Reefer Madness.” It has not been a huge tax bonanza for state coffers, although the first five months of licensed retail sales generated about $12 million in taxes.

Local law enforcement officials say they have seen an uptick in marijuana-impaired traffic arrests, although the biggest jump locally was before legal sales began. While firm data doesn’t exist yet, drug abuse professionals say anecdotal reports suggest more people misuse marijuana or mix it with alcohol and other substances.

“Everybody’s kind of feeling their way through,” said Linda Thompson of the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council. “We’re just anecdotally hearing so many things.”

Many could have been anticipated from the political arguments over Initiative 502, the ballot measure voters approved in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana. Not discussed, or even anticipated, were some legal and economic situations.

Spokane County and others around the state are studying zoning restrictions as neighbors of new marijuana growing operations complain about odors, increased traffic or lights from the extensive security setups state regulations require of licensed producers.

Some counties and cities have banned marijuana businesses, either through ordinances or zoning changes. Although recreational marijuana is legal statewide, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said this January the initiative wasn’t written in a way that overrides local controls, and four different courts around the state have agreed with that interpretation and upheld local bans.

Setting up a state-regulated marijuana system from scratch took longer than many people expected, with license applications not submitted until a year after the law passed, and the first legal pot crops not planted until this spring – causing some grumbling among some of the 2,700 would-be growers that the regulating agency, the Liquor Control Board, was slow to respond. The first grower’s license went to medical marijuana dispensary owner Sean Green of Spokane in March, but by July he was looking to sell his recreational pot business, Kouchlock Productions, to become an industry consultant.

Late last week, Green said he’s received “a few offers” but none that he’s willing to accept, so Kouchlock remains for sale and he’s working on draft legislation to better align recreational and medical marijuana systems and revise the recreational businesses’ tax structure.

The first state-licensed recreational marijuana stores opened in July to media fanfare, long lines and high prices from strong demand and limited supply. But the spotlight soon dimmed and store owners now deal with the same marketplace forces as any retailer, considering discounts to draw in customers. Potential investors in Spokane recently advertised on social media to start a “Meetup” organization “to facilitate the expansion and economic growth of the cannabis industry” but as of Friday had nothing scheduled.

Instead of a “green rush” of marijuana businesses, the state has seen more of a gradually widening stream from a slowly turned spigot. Spokane County has 61 licensed growers, but only 11 reported sales in November, totaling just over $303,000.

Of the 44 licensed processors, 21 had sales, which totaled $711,000. The area’s eight stores reported just over $1 million in sales for November.

Spokane Valley police Chief Rick Van Leuven told a legislative panel recently his officers “are seeing a rising trend” in marijuana-related driving under the influence arrests, from 17 in 2012 to 43 last year and 48 as of early November this year. They’re also seeing a jump in what they consider marijuana-related quality of life crimes like car prowling and burglaries.

Members of the panel, however, didn’t question the connection of I-502 to the jump between 2012 and 2013, when no legal sales took place last year.

Bob Calkins of the Washington State Patrol said the agency’s impaired-driving section “is not seeing a flood of marijuana-related DUIs.” They went from about 2.6 percent of all such arrests in 2012 to 4.1 percent in 2013. Among the smaller subset of traffic stops that result in a blood test, which is needed to detect the presence of marijuana or other drugs, about a fourth this year have come back positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana, while 50 percent are positive for alcohol and the remainder for a range of other prescription or illegal drugs.

“Alcohol is still our biggest problem,” he added. “Something that we are very concerned about is a little bit of pot and a little bit of alcohol. They combine to create a really impaired person even if each component is below the per se limit.”

The Washington Poison Center reported increases in emergency room cases of marijuana poisoning in October, jumping to 33 from 17 the previous month. But with only a handful of recreational stores open, the majority were likely from unregulated medical marijuana, the center said.

The slow rollout of licenses and store openings, coupled with the time needed to compile statistics from around the state, means reliable statistics on the effects of recreational marijuana may not be available for at least another year. But Thompson, of the area’s substance abuse council, said she thinks what people think they know about the law, but really don’t, is a big problem now.

Probationers ordered not to consume alcohol or drugs will say they take marijuana because it’s legal now. Wrong, it’s still a drug.

Some people think the legal age for recreational marijuana is 18, like cigarettes. Wrong, it’s 21, like alcohol.

“The misconceptions on what’s going on out there are pretty crazy,” she said. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that marijuana tax money is flowing into drug prevention programs around the state. That money only is going to a few designated programs, at select schools, she said. “Nothing’s coming down to communitywide prevention.”

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