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Shawn Vestal: Pot peeks out of closet as revenue fills coffers

Less than a year after marijuana became available in stores, it is no exaggeration to say that it’s booming.

Each new month brings increased sales and tax revenues. Marijuana bucks have already become a key element in state budget negotiations. Hundreds of licenses have been issued to retailers, growers and processors.

A less-tangible piece of this revolution is cultural – people are coming out of the marijuana closet, though whatever stigma is associated with pot-smoking is likely to fade more slowly than legal prohibition.

But consider this utterly remarkable scenario in Spokane politics: We have a candidate running for City Council president who wants to put a lid on marijuana sales in Spokane. And we have a candidate who argues that legal marijuana is good for Spokane, is bringing in tax revenues and is providing jobs. The candidate acknowledges using it himself, and says he will do so again.

And he’s the incumbent.

Which is to say nothing of the City Council member, Karen Stratton, who grows the stuff.

Council President Ben Stuckart, who is running against challenger John Ahern, says he has used marijuana since it was legalized. He made this acknowledgement first in an interview last week with the Inlander, and talked to me about it this week. Despite the fact that this comes well after we legalized pot, the admission still feels bold – or foolish. Isn’t it political suicide to make such an admission?

“It might be,” Stuckart said. “I don’t think so, though. Plus, I’d rather just be myself.”

Stuckart makes the case for openness about marijuana that is similar to what those of us who have long argued for legalization have said. It’s less harmful than alcohol, the kind of substance a free adult should be allowed to use. Plenty of adults do, of course, and did long before this was legal. The culture has been engaged in a kind of winking charade about weed for decades and one of the things that legalization has done in Washington is not initiate a new reality so much as pull back the curtain on a well-established one. As each month’s sales outpace the last, it’s obvious that all of these folks didn’t take up their first joint in July.

Admitting you use it now raises the question of whether you used it before. To that, Stuckart said, “I think it’s easier now to be yourself.”

Though he’s decided he’s willing to talk about his own use, Stuckart found himself at this juncture as questions about the larger issue were raised. Though it’s not his major issue, Ahern has said that he wants to put a moratorium on sales and production of marijuana in Spokane. I could not reach him Tuesday for a comment. His anti-drug crusading has included an attempt, when he was a legislator, to change state use of the word “cannabis” to “marijuana” because he considered cannabis to be a fashionable term, possibly appealing to children.

Stuckart argues that Spokane has been in the forefront in many ways on the marijuana business, and that it’s been good for the city. Most of the statistics on the legal market so far are based on state and county numbers, but he calculated some figures for the city of Spokane.

He said there are 41 licensed marijuana businesses in the city, including retailers, growers and processors, and that they accounted for $6.6 million in tax revenues since July 2014, including $66,000 directly into the city coffers.

Finally, there’s this: Fifty-seven percent of city residents voted for legalization.

“That’s not a small number,” Stuckart said. “That’s a large number of the public that said yes, legalize it.”

As we approach the one-year anniversary of recreational retail marijuana sales, it’s clear that for a lot of people, this is more than theoretical. In May, according to state figures, the legal pot market in Spokane County accounted for $6 million in revenues, including growers, processors and retailers. The county’s top retailer, Greenlight, broke $600,000 in sales for the first time. Two others topped $500,000.

Between January and April of this year, retail sales more than doubled, rising from $1.5 million to $3.2 million.

Statewide, more than $1 million in marijuana is sold each day, as of the state’s June 3 estimates. Since July 2014, sales and excise taxes have brought in more than $50 million. More than 160 retail licenses have been issued – with 11 in Spokane – along with nearly 500 licenses for producing or processing, or both.

The horse is out of the barn, at this point, and it’s got a lot of riders.

Many of us have smoked pot, and many of us have lied about it. Bill Clinton’s famous evasion – tried it, but didn’t inhale – perfectly sums up the tortured relationship between the public and private sides of marijuana, and our country’s ridiculous legal prohibition, which has been a costly, destructive failure. The states are starting to crack this open, but it’s worth noting that on the federal level, marijuana is still a “Schedule I” drug, classified with heroin and LSD.

I give Stuckart credit for honesty. He is as far out of this particular closet as any politician I am aware of, and I’m more concerned about the distorting intoxication of big money in politics than I am his recreational habits. He emphasized that he is not some all-day stoner, but uses it occasionally, and never on city business. A joint to relax, like a drink to relax, he said. The numbers prove he is far from alone in that, but as a political person, he is outlining new territory.

“It’s OK to talk about it,” he said. “It’s gaining acceptance and normalcy.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.