Seattle forum to shape new pot law system packed

Advocates advise board on taxes, grower regulations

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They came in suits and cowboy hats, with cropped gray hair and long ponytails, and they filled one room at Seattle City Hall and spilled into another, about 400 strong.

Some had waited decades for an event like this. Some thought they'd never see it. They were there to express views about the state's new legal-marijuana law enacted last fall by Initiative 502.

"Wow, there's one heckuva lot of interest in 502," said Sharon Foster, chair of the Washington state Liquor Control Board, the state agency charged with implementing the new law. The crowd had started lining up three hours before the event.

Foster told audience members if they kept their remarks to two minutes they'd get a "brownie point." That prompted several in the crowd to giddily ask, "What kind of brownie?"

Chris Marr, another liquor-board member, said, "When I was watching Cream at the Fillmore many years ago, I never envisioned this."

Washington's new law, which allows those 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot, must be implemented by December. In theory, adults will then be able to walk into stores around the state and buy locally grown pot that is licensed, taxed and regulated by the state.

The second of six statewide forums on legal marijuana, this was part rally, part policy conference.

Growers, breeders, sellers and advocates came out to push a variety of platforms. Some wanted the system to allow smaller growers. Others stressed the need for bigger breeding operations. Some begged to be taxed. Others said the law's high taxes would drive customers to the black market.

Kevin Oliver, executive director of Washington NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), was one of the first to speak. "Indeed the whole world is watching," Oliver said.

Oliver first suggested the liquor board add "cannabis" to its name, which drew huge applause. He went on to call for both big and small growers. "Think Budweiser and microbrews," he said.

John Eskola said he represented several small medical-marijuana growers. "We need to be part of it. This is a very emotional thing for me. The war is over. We won. Don't punish us, take our money."

Lobbyist Phil Wayt said the group he represented wants the state to follow the craft-beer model where there is no limit on the number of producers.

Philip Dawdy of the Washington Cannabis Association warned that taxes are too high. They are set at 25 percent of the selling price at three different junctures in the growing-to-sales process. "You have to beat the black market in price. I don't think you can do that with the 502 tax structure," he said.

The most insightful comment, though, might have come from Sam Dodge when he told liquor-board members, "for you to figure out how to serve cannabis customers is the steepest learning curve I've seen."