Bill would allow pot stores closer to schools, libraries

Existing 1,000-foot zones guarantee black market, sponsor says

jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.comMarch 13, 2013 

When Washington voters legalized marijuana last November, they also set up strict buffers between pot shops and places where children tend to go – buffers that one state lawmaker says could squash the nascent industry.

Chris Hurst, a former police detective from Enumclaw, might be the most conservative Democrat in the House. But he worries Washington “will not see a recreational marijuana market” this year if the rule stands keeping stores 1,000 feet from schools, parks, libraries, recreation centers, day-care centers and bus stations, putting large swaths of some cities off limits.

“The thousand-foot rule virtually guarantees the continued existence of the criminal market,” said Hurst, who leads a House committee overseeing marijuana.

A proposal Hurst unveiled Tuesday would scale the buffer back to 500 feet, similar to what is required for liquor stores. Separately, his plan would tap the marijuana industry for an extra $50 million, he estimates, by paving the way for higher permits and fines.

Authors of Initiative 502 put the buffers in place as extra protection from a potential federal challenge. The U.S. Justice Department has issued warnings to medical-marijuana outlets within 1,000 feet of schools.

Hurst said he thinks the department’s silence on Washington and Colorado legalization laws is something close to a nod of approval, and he said federal officials should recognize that leaving the black market in place doesn’t protect kids – who can get marijuana easily now, he said.

House Bill 2000 would give more authority to the Liquor Control Board that is setting the rules for marijuana growers and sellers. The agency is preparing to hand out licenses to growers as early as August.

The legislation would allow the board to set a range of fines rather than the fixed $1,000 penalty approved as part of I-502. It would get clearer authority to revoke licenses. And it could charge for licenses based on the expense of issuing them rather than a flat $1,000-a-year rate.

Perhaps most significantly, the proposal would set up a system for the sale and resale of a separate state permission to obtain a marijuana license, which would be sold based on “fair market value,” possibly to the highest bidder at regional auctions. They might be cheap in Forks and costly in Bellevue.

“I’ve had some entrepreneurs who’ve been in my office who said they’d be happy to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a license to operate a high-end retail store,” Hurst said.

Hurst’s proposal got a cautious thumbs-up from the lobbyist for one industry group, the Washington Cannabis Association.

But high fees are a source of worry from the authors of the initiative, who say they could drive small businesses out of the market.

“We have concerns about funneling the licenses (to big businesses) that may have an interest in not just meeting existing marijuana demand but also promoting greater marijuana use,” said Alison Holcomb of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Holcomb joined with several groups concerned about drug addiction to send a letter Monday to the Liquor Board arguing against rules that give preference to large businesses.

Hurst said high license fees would make sure legitimate businesses take over the market from former illegal sellers and tax cheats – and he argued the smallest businesses wouldn’t be able to survive in a legal market anyway given the need for financing and tight security.

Hurst said the changes need to be put in place now before the Liquor Board writes rules and hands out permits. But he said he would not pursue them unless the Legislature is close to unanimous in support. It takes two-thirds supermajorities in the House and Senate to change initiatives in their first two years.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 @Jordan_Schrader Download the Capital Update app for iPad and iPhone for a seven-day free trial.

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