By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
You can buy a bottle of vodka in grocery stores in Washington state now. Soon, you’ll be able to buy a small amount of recreational marijuana from a shop, possibly as early as this summer.
How did that all happen?
With the privatization of the state liquor system, the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) has gone through some tumultuous times, said board member Chris Marr. After the liquor privatization initiative by Costco was passed in 2011, the government went through an accelerated process to close its liquor stores. Washington Initiative 502, also known as “marijuana reform,” passed in November 2012.
Along with Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) chair Sharon Foster, Ruthann Kurose and Marr are board members who were appointed by former Governor Christine Gregoire several years ago.
Kurose has a long history of public service working on congressional legislative policy in Washington D.C., and on economic development policy in the cities of Seattle and Tacoma.
Marr served as a State Senator for the 6th District in Spokane from 2006 to 2010. Prior to his election in the Senate, he spent 20 years as managing partner of the Foothills Auto Group in Spokane, after working in management at Ford Motor Company and McDonald’s Corporation.
Recreational marijuana stores
Unlike the previous liquor system, the recreational marijuana stores will not be operated by the WSLCB. The private businesses will govern themselves. There will be 334 retail stores in the state, and 21 of them will be in Seattle.
Marr said that the WSLCB would strictly have a regulatory, enforcement, and revenue collection role. The board will make sure the product is tested and tracked, and ensure that it doesn’t get diverted to the black market. It will also make sure that there is no use in facilities and retail stores. The board won’t be involved in the operations of the stores.
Educating the public
Kurose said that the Washington State Liquor Control Board has always maintained its top priority in ensuring public safety.
“We believe that this can be achieved by creating a tightly controlled and regulated marijuana market,” she added.
Legislators are looking for opportunities to increase revenues in education and healthcare, but cities and countries have argued that they should get some of the money generated from marijuana sales.
One initiative calls for the direct revenue from sales to be used for prevention and education for youth. Many of those issues will be handled by the Department of Social and Health Services.
Resources such as educational and community programs are the best ways to address the impacts from marijuana and other drugs on communities of color — impacts that are often disproportionally high compared to other communities, said Marr. Both Marr and Kurose agreed that the greater availability of marijuana would have a larger impact on communities of color, where resources are generally less available.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone had a voice in the process, so we held public forums around the state, and worked carefully to include community input in our decisions,” Kurose said.
The board also worked with the community to create rules specifically to prevent underage use of marijuana, such as restrictions on advertising around schools, penalties for allowing minors to enter stores, and serious criminal charges for selling to minors. These penalties are harsher than their alcohol-related counterparts because of federal directives, Kurose stated.
“As legalization gains momentum and passes in other states, the need for a federal response grows. The current federal system for marijuana enforcement disproportionately affects communities of color,” Kurose said.
She said that the government needs to focus its resources on more serious threats to society, instead of nonviolent drug offenses.
Local organizations, such as Sea Mar and the International Community Health Services (ICHS), have spoken out about the need for linguistically appropriate needs for marijuana education.
Marr said that consultants said that they would get 13 percent of the market on the first day of sales, and they’d be lucky to get 25 percent. The rest of the market would be illegal or medical marijuana sales. “We know we won’t displace the marketplace that already exists, it’ll take a number of years.”
“It’ll be one of the more significant additions to state revenue that the state has seen in the years,” Marr said.
“I’m optimistic about the effect the new tax revenue will have in allowing our state to take a more public health oriented approach to marijuana use and help community and school-based programs, particularly in underserved communities,” Kurose said.
Marr explained that rural areas tend to ban the marijuana stores. Colorado had the same issue, as nine of the top 10 Colorado cities either had bans or moratoriums in place, but Marr doesn’t think it’ll be as bad in Washington State. The board is concerned that the black market will continue to operate if there are more bans in place. Marr said they are working with the local government to address some of these concerns.
In addition to the bans, there are still challenges with the initiative. Financially, medical marijuana has largely been run on a cash system, and some folks are unable to obtain loans from the banks.
“People are going to have to be patient because it will take some time. I feel pretty confident that we’ll have a system that balances people’s concerns about public safety and usage, and generate state revenue. It’s really important for the public to continue to be engaged,” Marr explained.
Marr said that the Office of Financial Management estimated that the recreational marijuana industry could make from zero to $1.9 billion dollars in five years. He also added that the Revenue Forecast Council predicted about $1 billion for five years.
Kurose said, “I-502 passing was a landmark event. Legalization poses many policy and operational uncertainties, but it challenges us and makes the work unique.” (end)
Nina Huang can be reached at email@example.com.