Most Washingtonians and a growing number of Americans understand what last year's Initiative 502 is doing in our state: legalizing the private, recreational use of marijuana by adults.
What more people need to understand is what I-502 does NOT do. It does not allow public consumption of marijuana, and it does not automatically create a mother lode of public revenue that will solve every budget-writing challenge legislators will encounter until the end of time.
Two developments last week prove the need for enhanced public awareness of marijuana use in our state. First, Gov. Jay Inslee was correct when he said the state Liquor Control Board must decide how to stop the increase in the number of bars that allow marijuana smoking. Second, expert consultants hired by the state are downplaying revenue expectations, because many variables surround this legalization process that no other state has tried.
A recent Associated Press story reported that two bars — Frankie's Sports Bar and Grill in Olympia and Stonegate in Tacoma — allow pot use in the establishments. Later, a story in The Seattle Times quoted Inslee spokesman David Postman: "Washingtonians did not vote for a wide-open policy."
That's true, and the two bars are in violation of at least two laws. The 7-year-old statewide ban prohibits smoking indoors in public places. To which the Olympia bar owner, Frankie Schnarrs, responded: "What the hell is the difference if somebody smokes in the parking lot or inside?" The difference, in the case of smoking, is the clearly written ban, which most other adults in the state seem to understand. And the difference, in the case of marijuana, is that pot use is not fully regulated and probably won't be until late 2014. That will be after the regulatory plan is rolled out, after marijuana-growing licenses have been issued, after the first legal, state-regulated crops have been grown, and after the product has appeared in state-licensed stores.
Until then, Inslee is correct in urging the Liquor Control Board to formalize rules that will protect the intent of I-502. LCB chairwoman Sharon Foster said that likely will happen soon.
As for the second misconception — expectations about the big-bucks bonanza that will materialize for the state's purse-string pullers — the advice from the state's new marijuana consultant is to dial it down a notch. "It's entirely possible that by the time we finish regulating and taxing this product, it's going to be uncompetitive with what you can get at the (marijuana) collective gardens," Mark Kleiman said on a TVW show that aired last Thursday. Kleiman is a UCLA public policy professor whom Washington hired to help with the state's legalization process. He notes that the cost of setting up state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores could be higher than expected, and there also are other factors such as the loosely regulated medical marijuana market and the illegal pot market.
That's why it's crucial for the LCB to be firm and clear with new regulations and enforcement procedures. It's also vital that public-education campaigns be enacted so more Washingtonians will understand the pioneering journey our state is taking.