Liquor board wants to hire more enforcement workers

Staff writerOctober 25, 2013 

Terry Nelson, a retired U.S. Federal agent who supports legalizing drugs, and who is with the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, tours the River Rock marijuana dispensary, in Denver, Wednesday Oct. 23, 2013. Out of state activists, and several foreign lawmakers pushing for drug law reforms at home, took a close up look the evolving legal marijuana industry in Colorado.


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 pot shops. The board will license up to 334 retail stores.

“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 enforcement work. For example, it wants the law to spell out that officers are allowed to 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 those kinds of 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.

Some of the hoped-for new money would go to evidence storage, technology for tracking, licensing and taxing, and a study of how best to measure marijuana potency.

But most would go to staffing. The board needs more analysts and experts to handle the new systems, said its chief financial officer, Mike Kashmar, and it needs to keep more than half of the roughly 20 licensing officials brought in on a temporary basis to handle the initial flood of applications.

The main need is for enforcement staff, says the board, which wants to make 22 hires in that area. As many as five could be devoted to retail stores, Nordhorn said.

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 focused on reacting to complaints rather than seeking out problems on their own.

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

“One of the things they recognized,” Hurst said of the board, “was they just don’t have the number of people that are going to be necessary to do a number of different tasks.”

“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.

Part of the federal mandate is to keep weed out of the hands of kids. I-502 prohibits sales to anyone younger than 21.

The liquor board is asking lawmakers to add penalties for underage buyers and anyone making or using fake identification to buy pot. And it wants authority to send 18-to-20-year-olds into stores to try buying the drug, on tightly controlled missions similar to what the board does for alcohol.

Hurst said he has no problem with allowing youth to help in stings – as long as the U.S. Justice Department gives a green light.

He balks at another liquor board request, to give its officers the same general authority as regular police officers. Hurst, a former detective, said expanding its authority far beyond drugs and alcohol would open the door to “mission creep.” Nordhorn says it’s important for officers who stumble upon robberies, white-collar crime or other problems to be able to intervene.

Don’t expect the money to fund a major crackdown on the black market. Nordhorn expects to hear complaints from licensed sellers about their unlicensed competitors and said his officers may help, but responsibility will remain primarily with local law enforcement — which does not receive funding from I-502.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ @Jordan_Schrader

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