Politics & Government

Oldest, best behaved medical marijuana shops most likely to get licensed

Washington marijuana regulators have a big job ahead of them, and replacing officers’ badges, shirts and caps with ones that read “Liquor and Cannabis Board” is the least of it.

The same law that will change the Liquor Control Board’s name July 24 directs the agency to decide which unlicensed medical-marijuana shops and grow operations to legitimize and which ones must close by July 1, 2016.

Questions remain unanswered, but the process will involve a merit system and will look different from the one the liquor board has used to hand out more than 500 licenses to growers and processors over the past year and more than 150 to stores.

The agency opened a 30-day window in late 2013 for those recreational-marijuana applications. Licenses went to growers and processors that were qualified and ready to go and retailers that won a lottery for a limited number of slots.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a need for a lottery,” liquor board director Rick Garza said as he described how the law approved last month by the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee would be implemented.

Research the agency is doing now will help decide for sure whether a lottery is needed, Garza said. It will also help decide if sellers should be able to apply at any time for a marijuana license, as they may for a liquor license, rather than within only a short window.

To help lawmakers estimate costs, the agency assumed 825 unlicensed medical shops would apply for a license and half would receive one — although that was before all the details of the law were ironed out.

The liquor board will decide how many applicants to license. But the Legislature called for a tiered system for choosing them.

First dibs would go to people who have been in the medical-marijuana industry since before 2013, have paid their taxes and applied for one of the recreational licenses. Next up are applicants who didn’t apply for a recreational license but meet the other requirements. Everyone else falls into a third tier.

Many of Washington’s more than 1,000 — maybe more than 2,000 — unlicensed medical marijuana shops won’t qualify for special consideration because they are too new, Garza said.

“In Thurston County here we’ve seen a doubling or a tripling of the number of green crosses since (recreational) legalization back in 2012,” he said. “That seems to be consistent with what we’re seeing across the state.”

Regulators should license as many new growers, processors and retailers as possible that have a history of good behavior, said Alex Cooley, vice president of Seattle medical-marijuana grower and processor Solstice and a supporter of the law.

“Many people have been doing this for up to 10 years now and have been serving their communities and taking care of many sick people and doing it in a compassionate way,” Cooley said.

Much of the work to implement the law falls to the state Department of Health. The agency will define what qualifies as medical-grade marijuana and choose a contractor to set up a registry for patients. People who join the registry will get protection from arrest and less stringent limits on how much marijuana they can possess.

The health department will complete at least two tasks by July 24, when some parts of the law take effect, said Chris Baumgartner, who leads a unit of the agency that deals with medical marijuana. It will develop a form for medical providers to authorize marijuana use and tell providers how to report numbers of authorizations.

The law calls for providers who write more than 30 authorizations in a month to report the number to the department.

Some in the medical-marijuana industry are nervously eying another part of the law that takes effect July 24: a prohibition on unlicensed operations making hash or marijuana concentrate using butane.

It’s intended to keep home chemists from triggering explosions, but many medical-marijuana processors rely on that extraction process, Cooley said. Those processors can’t seek licenses until 2016.

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