Liquor Board wants money for more hires

As new duty of inspecting marijuana retailers rolls out, officers will be stretched

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State regulators overseeing marijuana legalization are asking for money to keep or hire 46 more employees next year.

The biggest share of staff would make up an enforcement unit whose officers would oversee the businesses sprouting up to grow and process pot. It could be a big job -- the Liquor Control Board plans to hand out grower and processor licenses to any applicants who qualify.

A smaller number of new officers would join a unit that today checks grocery stores and bars for compliance with the law, but whose mission is expanding to include up to 334 pot shops.

"We're going to try to have a high level of scrutiny for the retail operations, especially initially," said Justin Nordhorn, chief of enforcement and education for the state Liquor Control Board, who plans to have officers check each store at least three times a year while also making educational visits to explain the rules. "I think those retailers can probably expect five to six visits in that first year, at least."

The board also wants changes in state laws to help with the new work. For example, it wants the law to spell out that officers can send underage buyers into pot shops on stings.

It's been nearly a year since voters passed Initiative 502 calling for licensed sales of the drug -- and devoting a small slice of the proceeds, up to $5 million a year, to the liquor board. That revenue won't start flowing until businesses start paying hefty new excise taxes on the drug, and the board says it needs the money sooner.

Board members are asking Gov. Jay Inslee to include more than $6.5 million in the budget proposal he will unveil in December to adjust spending through June 2015. State lawmakers will consider such adjustments after they return to Olympia in January.

Lawmakers already handed out $2.5 million for I-502 implementation this year. And that's in addition to an estimated $900,000 to $1 million spent on the consultants who helped the liquor board figure out what the new system should look like.

Most of the requested money would go to staffing. Existing officers who handle alcohol enforcement wouldn't be able to take on the new duties, Nordhorn said. They are understaffed with about one officer for every 290 licensed locations, he said, leaving them reacting to complaints rather than seeking out problems.

Supporting the funding plan is Rep. Chris Hurst, the Enumclaw Democrat who chairs the House committee overseeing liquor and marijuana.

"We know the feds have said that we have got to do this right. If we make any mistakes, then they pull the rug out from under us," Hurst said.

The U.S. Justice Department has allowed Washington and Colorado to move forward with voter-approved licensing schemes even though marijuana is illegal under federal law, as long as there is strict enforcement.