State’s legal pot market is evolving

Staff file

When it comes to creating legal marijuana markets, slow and steady may win the race in Washington. A year after pot shops opened for legal sales of recreational weed, the state Legislature and local governments have enacted more uniform, sensible regulations that include medical marijuana sales.

The new system is a work in progress. Recreational marijuana, which voters approved in this state and Colorado in 2012, has taken time to get off the ground after decades of prohibition, which is still the government’s policy at the federal level.

But the Washington experiment is helping to open minds around the country and inspire other jurisdictions to take a similar plunge. In Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., voters approved pot legalization measures last year, and other states including California may see ballot proposals in 2016.

So far in Washington, 161 state-licensed, privately owned shops are actively selling recreational marijuana across the state, including nine shops in unincorporated Thurston County, three in Olympia, two in Lacey and one in Tumwater. Statewide sales of roughly $250 million were expected by the end of June, generating about $64 million in excise taxes for the state in the first year.

There are projections that state revenues could swell to $1 billion over the next four years, which may be overly optimistic.

Just as important as the money are reforms to the state’s long-standing medical marijuana system, which has been largely unregulated. New laws taking effect this month replace a three-tier tax system on legal pot with a single, 37 percent tax.

Over time, medical marijuana shops are being folded into the recreational system. This has drawn protests from some patients over the potentially higher costs of medication. But it should bring more legitimacy to the medical marijuana system, and there are options for patients to avoid taxes by signing up for a patient registry. There also is provision for small cooperatives that let patients grow marijuana for their own use.

Overall, a more orderly future appears within grasp for the state’s recreational and medical marijuana markets. But it’s going to take time to sort out.

Only about 10 percent of the marijuana consumed in the state is believed to have been sold in state-regulated stores since it became legal, according to state officials. One premise for Initiative 502, which legalized sales, was to take profit out of criminal drug gangs’ operations.

In a sign of changing times, the Washington state Liquor Control Board is changing its name on July 24 to the Liquor and Cannabis Board. Cities and counties also are adjusting; last week Thurston County commissioners amended rules for where marijuana can be grown, processed and sold.

Sales of marijuana remain illegal under federal law, although the Justice Department is showing tolerance for Washington and Colorado’s systems. Federal legislation is still needed to clarify whether banks can finance marijuana growing and selling operations, which currently are forced in some cases to do risky, cash-only business.

Those congressional efforts face high political hurdles that require time and patience to overcome. In the nation as a whole, we’ve only taken the first steps on the path to legal marijuana.