In Our View: Legalized Pot Plot Thickens

Questions about taxation further complicate unprecedented saga



As members of the Washington State Liquor Control Board continue to feel their way down the dark tunnel of marijuana legalization, they keep bumping into more questions than answers. A crowd of 450-plus people showed up for a public forum in Spokane on Tuesday, and the “what-ifs” vastly outnumbered rational solutions. It was one of the largest turnouts in the continuing series of WSLCB meetings, which visited Vancouver on Feb. 7.

One day before the Spokane meeting, the state House Finance Committee was talking about perhaps the most complicated of all marijuana legalization issues: taxation, especially as it pertains to medical marijuana.

All the more reason for Washingtonians to pay close attention to something that has never happened in America until November 2012 (and probably anywhere in the world): voter authorization of legalized marijuana use. Indeed, the regulatory tunnel is long and winding, and no resolution of the myriad mysteries is visualized in the near future. As The Columbian opined on Feb. 11, marijuana legalization “has become a huge but necessary bureaucratic nightmare. So stay tuned.” Even if you have no desire or intention of ever using marijuana, this issue affects you.

For example, you could find yourself caught in a tug of war between enthusiastic advocates. In Spokane on Tuesday night, Ryan Park of San Francisco said our state’s production, distribution and sale of marijuana to adults “could be the next American industry,” and with marijuana tax revenues: “We could be the country that smoked its way out of debt.” Needless to say, that was far from comforting to the other side. According to the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, hometown activist Martina Coordes said: “I know we joke tonight, but we don’t want our kids using marijuana. … Let’s not dumb up our kids.”

Emotions also were high in Olympia on Monday at the committee meeting. Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington since voters approved it in 1998, but prescription medications are not taxed in our state. Then again, doctors recommend but do not officially prescribe marijuana for pain relief, so there’s the argument that last year’s Initiative 502 should be seen as allowing taxation of medical pot.

Legislators are trying to sort this out with several bills, and the one under discussion on Monday would tax medical marijuana dispensaries the same as recreational marijuana sales. “If we don’t equalize taxes, we run an even greater risk of a black market and we set the stage for substantial market distortions,” said one of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

He’s right, and crucial to his point is the phrase “even greater risk.” First, there’s the risk of a black market fueled by high taxes on legal marijuana. And if medical marijuana patients think their pot should be tax-free, then they should explain how to do that while following the mandates of Initiative 502. See how this problem becomes even more complicated by the day?

Even with all the confusion, I-502 makes as much sense now as it did in November. But it’s going to take a well-informed citizenry, plus an eminently patient and courageous WSLCB, to resolve these issues before the scheduled legalized sale of marijuana in Washington on Dec. 1.

Which reminds us: In addition to the enormous complexities involved, there’s also the matter of a rapidly approaching deadline.