Lawmakers will have to adjust to some changes during the upcoming session of the Washington Legislature, starting with a remote format for many sessions and hearings due to COVID-19 precautions.
The high learning curve and anticipated technical challenges may alter how lawmakers, lobbyists, staff and concerned citizens will conduct the state’s business.
“It changes how and when we interact with representatives and senators,” said Crystal Oliver, executive director of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association, a group of about 60 cannabis growers. “It’s no longer possible to pop into their office for 10 minutes between committee hearings, nor is it possible to have a brief conversation with a representative or senator as they’re walking down the hall. It really changes the dynamic of those ongoing conversations.”
At the same time, the format may improve accessibility for people who have had challenges making it to Olympia to testify, observe or discuss policy.
“This year it’s going to be a lot easier for folks on the east side of the state to engage with their representatives and senators directly,” Oliver said.
Chris Marr, a lobbyist for the cannabis industry, former state senator and past member of the Liquor and Cannabis Board, expects a strange session – and possibly a shorter one.
He said the cannabis industry has done well in past sessions by putting out calls for passionate stakeholders to testify on critical bills.
“Some past bills are often affected by big turnouts of cannabis licensees, where there is a lot of emotion,” he said.
Marr also expects more attention from lawmakers on cannabis topics, but for unusual reasons.
While many Washington businesses shut down or altered services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis was declared essential, which led to significant sales – and state revenue, thanks to a 37 percent excise tax. Many in the industry have wished this number could be lowered, but Marr said it’s possible that lawmakers may suggest an increase to bring in additional tax dollars.
“Cannabis is one of the few bright spots in not just a budget year, but in a budget crisis year,” he said.
Lara Kaminsky, past executive director of the Cannabis Alliance, has been asked to help with the Alliance’s policy efforts.
“The past year has really brought to light the need for community and our ability to be successful relies so heavily on our ability to work together,” she said. “After a year of being marked essential, there are many areas in the law that need interpretation, adjustment, and clarification.”
The Cannabis Alliance, a group of professionals from different areas of the cannabis community, outlined its legislative agenda in November. One of its efforts is to request the creation of a state Cannabis Research Commission.
“The establishment of this commission helps us be on the forefront of best practices regarding growing methods, worker safety, crop protection and more, helping us achieve our goals for a vital and sustainable industry,” Kaminsky said.
She said the Alliance will also be seeking to exempt authorized medical patients from paying the excise tax, and to continue a push to allow any adult to grow personal amounts of cannabis.
“Giving people the right to grow at home has multiple positive benefits for the individual as well as the industry,” she said. “We are the only legal state to not allow it – not only does it make sense on a practical level, but allowing people to grow at home increases their knowledge, understanding and interest in the cultivation of cannabis … making them more informed consumers.”
She said beer homebrewing helped boost the craft beer industry, and homegrown cannabis can do the same thing.
Marr said home grow has its supporters but has traditionally been a tough sell for the larger Legislature, especially since it is already allowed for certain medical patients. More access could hurt the industry and introduce more challenges for law enforcement as well.
Oliver hopes to push for increasing the responsibilities of the Washington Department of Agriculture, especially in areas such as pesticide standards and the need to implement a Certified Cannabis program. She and other members are again hoping for official recognition of cannabis farming as an agricultural activity, which will allow tax deductions and exemptions.
State officials and advocacy groups are also focused on equity topics, including efforts to bring more people of color into ownership and leadership roles.
“This year, representatives have been asked to limit legislative proposals due to challenges facing their staff as they navigate a fully remote session,” Oliver said. “They’ve been asked to focus on issues that advance equity, respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, advance economic recovery, and address the climate crisis so as we promote our priorities, we work to connect our issues to these priorities.”
The LCB has been discussing equity, as has a state-created equity task force authorized after last year’s session.
The state group was supposed to begin meeting in April to discuss recommendations for this coming session, but due to pandemic disruptions, it didn’t come together until November, so Marr is uncertain it will be able to accomplish its task in time for effective discussion.
Kaminsky said the Alliance also is eager for improvement in equity efforts.
“Equity is a theme that runs through all of the work we do and improving access for patients, as well as devoting research to safe product and working conditions, fits squarely in that directive,” she said.
Equity is also a priority with the Washington Cannabusiness Association, which represents licensed and regulated cannabis and hemp businesses.
WACA has created a legislative and regulatory agenda of items its members support, oppose or are neutral on, but equity is the focus this session.
Executive Director/Lobbyist Vicki Christopherson is looking forward to hearing the recommendations of the state social equity commission. These will provide some needed first steps for the industry.
Its official agenda states: “We welcome engagement in the dialogue to correct flaws in the existing system which failed to recognize the impact of inequity on black and brown communities when it comes to cannabis business.”
Beyond equity, Christopherson said WACA won’t suggest new legislation this session, but she and other members are ready to oppose efforts to increase the excise tax, which is already the highest of its type in the country.
She understands that lawmakers are faced with trying to help other weaker sectors, but raising the tax to hurt isn’t the ideal solution especially when the legal market is trying to compete with the illicit market.
“Even though this tax is paid by consumers at the retail level, every entity feels its effects,” she said.
Cannabis-related legislation must pass through the House Commerce and Gaming Committee and the Senate Labor and Commerce Committees.
“Legislators have become more astute in their understanding of our issues,” Kaminsky said. “They ask informed questions which really helps us lay out our reasons for pushing the issues we care about. We’ve even had previously resistant legislators participate in farm tours and virtual tours helping us demystify the industry for them. Since we now have six years under our belt, not to mention that most states have some form of cannabis legalization, we are slowly winning hearts and minds.”