Marijuana rules get tentative OK in Washington

Anyone waiting to legally buy recreational marijuana in Washington will have to wait about nine months longer. Revised regulations given tentative approval Wednesday for a system to license, inspect and track the drug would probably get the first lawfully grown and processed marijuana into state-licensed stores by June 1, some 20 months after voters legalized it with Initiative 502.

For those a bit bummed about the wait, this may be a bit of consolation: There could be 334 stores operating by then, as many as 18 in Spokane County.

But only if cities and counties that have adopted moratoriums on marijuana businesses within their boundaries drop their objections.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board approved another round of changes to regulations it has been crafting since last December. It will hold hearings in early October in Spokane and Seattle, and, if nothing else comes up, give the 43 pages of rules a final OK on Oct. 16.

The proposed rules limit the overall size of the state’s marijuana crop, the number of licenses anyone can hold and the amount of the drug the licensees can have on hand.

“We have done something that is making history,” board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said.

If no other rule changes are required, the board will begin accepting license applications for one month beginning Nov. 16, then review the applicants’ business plans. Licenses would likely be awarded in the spring, and the time needed to grow, process and ship marijuana suggests stores would open June 1, Foster said.

The federal government removed one major barrier last week, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would not try to stop Washington and Colorado, where voters also have legalized recreational marijuana, from setting up their systems. But other obstacles remain.

The board has proposed limits on the number of stores for each county and large city. But some Washington counties and cities have passed ordinances blocking any marijuana businesses from operating within their boundaries. The agency will issue licenses to qualified applicants in those locations, but it will be up to the license holder to challenge the local government’s restriction and obtain a local business license.

Chris Marr, a liquor board member, said many local governments are primarily concerned about running afoul of federal law, which still classifies marijuana as illegal for all uses. Last week’s memo from the Justice Department may allay some concerns, he said, and a review of the state’s tight rules for security and restrictions against sales to children may also help.

“Early on, there may be some access problems,” Marr said.

The agency also faces a legal challenge from a coalition representing medical marijuana operations that contends it has not followed state environmental laws in setting up its regulations. That challenge has a hearing in Thurston County Superior Court next week.

Among the changes to rules given tentative approval Wednesday is a limit of three licenses for any person or business in any of the main categories – growing, processing or retailing. A person may hold three growing licenses and three processing licenses, but growers or processors will not be able to hold any retailing licenses. The board also set the limit on the number of retail licenses a person or company can hold in a county or city.

Limiting the number of licenses is a way to keep the market from being dominated “by a few larger players,” Marr said. It should also encourage the stores to be dispersed throughout the state.

There would be 18 total licenses available in Spokane County, with eight in the city of Spokane, three in the city of Spokane Valley and seven “at large” locations elsewhere in the county.

Stores must be at least 1,000 feet away from a school, playground, child-care center or publicly owned recreation center. But in a proposed change given tentative approval Wednesday, that distance will not be calculated in a straight line or “as the crow flies” but on the common path of travel using streets and sidewalks. That is expected to increase the number of locations where stores could be located.

The new proposed rules set a limit for the total amount of recreational marijuana to be produced in the state each year and the total amount of space available for growing in the state. Marijuana growers will be ranked by size into different tiers, but no licensee will be able to grow plants on more than 30,000 square feet – about two-thirds of an acre.

Jeremy Moberg of the Okanogan Cannabis Association said such caps favor indoor growers, who can get four or five crops a year in their allotted space, over outdoor operations that can produce one or two. Indoor grows use more energy and have greater pollution problems than outdoor grows, he said.

The sizes are so small that most growers will try to maximize their yields, which also can lead to bad environmental practices, he said. The agency previously said it would allow outdoor grows as a way of mitigating the energy and pollution concerns over indoor growing operations, but the new rules favor indoor growers so much that the agency may need to develop an environmental impact statement, he said.

“I think they’ve made it more difficult than it needs to be,” Moberg said.

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