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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report: ‘Cultural change’ needed in enforcement of marijuana laws in Washington state

The Washington State Liquor Cannabis Board Director Rick Garza, left, and board chair Jane Rushford record a podcast in Spokane in this January 2018 photo. Garza said Thursday his agency would respond to a report suggesting “cultural change” was needed in enforcement of marijuana laws at the agency. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board will work in the new decade to encourage compliance with the state’s marijuana laws, its director said Thursday, rather than quickly doling out punishments.

The pledge was made after the release of an independent report found a “cultural change” was needed in the agency responsible for overseeing enforcement of laws governing Washington’s legal cannabis industry. The report, authored by the firm Hillard Heintze based out of Chicago, made several recommendations intended to make the board “be more prevention and compliance oriented, rather than focusing almost exclusively upon enforcement activities.”

“I think we have learned a lot in the last five years of regulating the industry, where it became very strict,” said Rick Garza, director of the liquor and cannabis board, in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “To begin to move toward a system that, I’ll just say, is less strict and more in working with the industry.”

The Liquor and Cannabis Board, which employs 82 enforcement officers with limited law enforcement abilities under state law, has issued 3,220 rule violations to marijuana licensees in the past five-plus years, according to agency data. Potential punishments include fines, as well as suspension or cancellation of a license, but a third of those violations resulted in written warnings.

Of the reported violations, 349 have been issued to companies operating in Spokane County.

Licensees reported to the investigative firm in interviews this summer they felt intimidated, at times, by certain enforcement officers. There wasn’t consistency in how different agents would handle situations, but some were too quick to punish, rather than assist the company in complying with state law. Garza said the board had already instituted some new training for its officers, many of whom have law enforcement backgrounds, and would be altering their uniform requirements to reflect the move away from enforcement to education.

“We’re going to look and revise that entire policy, to be one that’s more uniform,” said Garza, who noted agents can be armed with handguns and have wide discretion in their work uniform when dealing with cannabis businesses. “What I’d say is a softer approach. In other words, an approach that looks more like a khaki and polo shirt.”

The liquor and cannabis board paid $109,025 to Hillard Heintze for their work preparing the report, a spokesman said Friday.

Chris Marr, a former state legislator and Liquor and Cannabis Board member who works as a consultant for cannabis businesses, said when the agency began its enforcement of the cannabis industry some of the agents expressed concern about regulating the drug.

“You had a number of officers that were really conflicted about being associated with legalizing something that they’d spent their whole careers trying to put out of business,” Marr said.

The independent review was initiated by the Liquor and Cannabis Board as licensees were clamoring in the Legislature for lawmakers to ease the grip of an agency enforcing laws that Garza admitted Thursday were more draconian than in other states that have legalized marijuana.

“We started with probably the most restrictive initiative that was passed nationwide to determine how this industry would be regulated,” Garza said.

Washington legislators approved a law last session requiring the agency to provide more notices before assessing a fine or altering a license and limiting when a license could be canceled.

Marr said Thursday afternoon he hadn’t read the 53-page report but applauded the agency for responding to concerns from business owners and lawmakers alike about perceived heavy-handedness.

“I think we are entering a period where there’s a genuine desire on the part of the LCB to move away from a punitive, kind of law-enforcement approach,” Marr said. “It’s easier in terms of resources and so on. We have to remember that we’re dealing with an industry that had a lot of baggage come with it.”

One area addressed in the report was equity in punishment between larger companies and small-tier operations. For marijuana producers, the state established a three-tiered system that limited how much of the drug companies could grow at one time. Smaller-tiered and outdoor firms have long argued the system has been set up to put larger operations at an advantage, and that observation found its way into the Hillard Heintze report.

The authors wrote “the perception from the field that officers do not understand small businesses or that they target them is an issue.”

Garza said the board has proposed new legislation and rules that would assist smaller businesses compete with their larger counterparts, including a bill that would allow medical-grade cannabis grown by smaller operations to be delivered to homes. But the internal changes being considered by the Liquor and Cannabis Board will not directly address that concern raised briefly in the report, Garza said.

“As it relates directly to enforcement, I didn’t see anything there that I guess grabbed our attention enough that we felt we needed to address it,” he said. Garza acknowledged they’d heard the cost of complying with the agency’s rules might be more difficult to bear for smaller firms.

The board held a public hearing Wednesday in Olympia on new marijuana enforcement rules pursuant to the new state law. They’re scheduled for a vote from the board later this month.