Perplexities of legal pot draw hundreds to local forum

Growers, users say black market will thrive if state regulates poorly

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Live chat

Click here to read the live Columbian chat during the forum

The state's budding marijuana industry was the topic of talk Thursday evening at Clark College in Vancouver, where pot enthusiasts and concerned citizens advised the state's Liquor Control Board on how to regulate the now-legal substance.

Small-time medical marijuana growers and those who have sold marijuana on the black market wanted to make sure they'd be able to compete with big corporations who might move into the state to capitalize on the new law. Some citizens warned that if the regulated weed isn't strong enough or inexpensive enough, customers will continue to turn to the black market to buy their pot.

"I'm almost 64 years old, and I've been smoking pot since I was about 19," Henry Washburn, of Vancouver, told the liquor control board. "You can go anywhere -- Vancouver, Portland, Longview, Tri Cities -- and you can buy weed for $200 an ounce. It might not be the organic (marijuana) being sold in medical marijuana dispensaries, but I'm here to tell you, it's good weed. … You need to talk to pot smokers. Use some common sense."

About 400 people packed the college's Gaiser Hall, and the faint scent of marijuana wafted in the air.

This fall, voters approved Initiative 502, which made recreational marijuana use legal for people 21 and older. Those people can smoke pot in the privacy of their home or carry an ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused food, or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquid.

The state's Liquor Control Board is tasked with establishing rules about producing, processing and selling marijuana. The board can decide how many retail outlets will be allowed to sell pot and how many licenses will be granted for marijuana producers, processors and retailers.

Thursday's forum opened with an hour-long meet-and-greet between the public and liquor control board officials. Then, after officials briefed the crowd on I-502 for a few minutes, they opened the meeting up for nearly two hours of public comments.

Many testifying were involved in growing pot and detailed the different strains of marijuana they've painstakingly cultivated over the past years.

"We are the black market, and although the plans are to have regulations and rules in place, if we're not successful, the black market will continue," Paula Tschida, of Portland, said. "It should be more along the lines of a convergence than just trying to do away with everyone who's already doing business."

That comment was met with loud applause and cheering from the audience.

Charles Feick, of the Northwest Growers Association, told a reporter that these next few months is all about marijuana growers and sellers "jockeying for position."

Sean Chavez, with the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Clark County, wasn't met with the same enthusiasm. The prevention specialist asked the liquor control board to reduce teen exposures to marijuana by limiting advertising and product sampling, for example.

His organization's "concern is use of marijuana because of its harmful effects on the developing brain, and our main focus is youth," Chavez said. "We know that 26 percent of high school seniors in Clark County have used marijuana in the last 30 days, and we also know that students who use marijuana are more likely to have lower grades in school and be less productive ..."

Chavez' comments were overpowered by boos. Members of the liquor control board reminded the audience to be respectful to everyone testifying.

Once Chavez finished speaking, the crowd gave him a polite applause.

Next steps

The liquor control board will team up with other state agencies to implement the marijuana law. They'll work with the state's health department to oversee educational programs that teach youth about the health impacts of marijuana. They'll work with the state's Department of Revenue to develop a tax structure for the new industry.

They'll also create packaging labels indicating the strength of the marijuana for sale.

The Liquor Control Board has already hosted marijuana forums in Seattle and Olympia, and it has five other forums scheduled throughout the state, the final one taking place March 7 in Bremerton.

Licenses for marijuana growers and producers are expected to be available in mid-August. Licenses for marijuana retails should be available Dec. 1. Proposed rules for regulating the industry will be up for review this spring.

"This is the result of government by initiative, and it may not be perfect," liquor control member Chris Marr said. "No one is going to be completely happy with the outcome."

Marr said the board is restricted in how it can regulate the industry, and those restrictions are based on the wording of I-502. For example, the board will not be involved in setting prices for marijuana, and it cannot regulate medical marijuana.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com