Pot dealers ponder life in legal business

Staff writerNovember 25, 2012 

“I’ve been a drug dealer for more than 30 years.”

Before Election Day this year, making such a statement in public could have been considered unwise.

But when Jeff Gilmore says it now, there’s pride in his voice.

Next year, when the state starts handing out applications for marijuana-growing licenses, Gilmore hopes his extensive experience with grow lights, fertilizers and irrigation systems will give him a leg up on competitors.

Gilmore, 59, a longtime Thurston County resident, said he’s been growing and selling pot since shortly after he graduated from the University of Washington back in the Vietnam War era.

“I’m an independent farmer, and I believe in small business,” Gilmore said recently. “I want to create 10,000 jobs in Washington in the cannabis industry.”

Gilmore is one of an army of black-market pot purveyors who, with the passage of Initiative 502 legalizing up to an ounce of pot for all adults, hope to make lateral transfers into the legitimate market.

The potential rewards are enormous.

If the federal government allows Washington to proceed with its social experiment, retail marijuana sales in the state could top $1 billion a year, according to the state’s Office of Financial Management, which studied impacts of I-502 before the Nov. 6 election.

Annual consumption, not including sales to out-of-state consumers who come here to take advantage of legal weed, could reach 94 tons, according to the agency.

Because the state will limit the number of growers, processors and retailers, some are regarding the licenses as permission to print money.

POT PIONEERS

“Think of the novelty of this,” said Tacoma attorney Jay Berneburg. “You will be one of the first people in the entire world to legally sell marijuana. You will probably make a million dollars your first five days in business. People will be buying it just because they can.”

Over the past few years, Berneburg has become the go-to-guy for marijuana-related legal representation in the South Sound.

His clients include owners of 65 medical marijuana outlets, he said, and nearly all of them have expressed an interest in moving into the legitimate trade once the state Liquor Control Board completes its rule-making process.

“Most of my clients have expressed a desire to apply for licensing under I-502,” Berneburg said. “We’re looking ahead to as to what they might do.”

Interest is so high, Berneburg said, he’s scheduled a workshop on Saturday for his clients who want to apply for a license.

The Liquor Control Board is at least a year away from handing down the rules that will define the new industry, and that’s if the federal government doesn’t stop the whole enterprise in its tracks before then – a huge if, according to some.

The board has a new I-502 implementation page on its website, but it offers few hints about what the new rules might look like, other than to say the marijuana system will be similar to the one used to control alcohol. It also said it expects to take every bit of the time allowed — until Dec. 1, 2013 — to complete the rules.

Still, cannabis candidates are getting their papers in order.

Berneburg knows the exercise is speculative at this point. Even so, he said, it makes sense to be prepared.

“We’re putting together pre-licensing dossiers for people interested in going forward with this,” Berneburg said.

Nobody knows at this point what the Liquor Control Board might require of its applicants, but Berneburg is using the state’s old liquor license requirements as a likely template.

“That way,” he said, “as soon as it does come down, they can immediately apply and be first in line.”

CHEECH AND CHONG?

For some, the idea that Washington’s grand experiment with marijuana could be staffed with a cast of characters from the Cheech and Chong days is less than reassuring.

The most idealistic of I-502’s supporters see the change as a precedent for the rest of the country and even the world. If the plan proceeds without the courts stopping it, attention will be riveted on how well it turns out.

The bill’s backers want to make sure it works.

Alison Holcomb, the attorney who ran the successful I-502 campaign, is back at her regular job as ACLU of Washington’s drug policy adviser, and she and the rest of the ACLU organization will maintain their attention, said Doug Honig, ACLU of Washington’s director of communications.

“We’ll be watching it closely to ensue that the law is fully and fairly implemented,” Honig said. “We’ll provide input as appropriate.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@ thenewstribune.com

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