State government is headed toward licensing no more than 31 marijuana stores in Pierce County next year, including as many as eight in Tacoma.
Two each would be allowed in Lakewood and Puyallup, one each in University Place and Bonney Lake and 17 more in the rest of Pierce County under rules the state Liquor Control Board proposed Wednesday that would allow 334 stores around Washington.
The privately run stores, on track to open by June 1, would be distributed around the state in similar numbers and proportions just as state-run liquor stores were before voters privatized them in 2011.
“We’re really not going to see a marijuana store on every corner in every neighborhood,” said Alison Holcomb, the lead author of last fall’s Initiative 502, which legalized the recreational use of the drug and assigned the liquor board to regulate it.
The board’s latest try is its third draft of rules but the first to set limits on the sizes and numbers of businesses to be licensed. Holcomb said it aligns with her initiative’s intent.
An unlimited number of growers and processors of pot can qualify for the licenses to be handed out in March. But growers are restricted to a maximum of 30,000 square feet worth of plants on their farms or in their buildings or greenhouses — for a total statewide cap of 2 million square feet, and a total harvest of up to 40 metric tons of pot.
That’s enough for every adult in Washington state to consume roughly a quarter-ounce of the drug — a fraction of what state officials think is already used illegally or through the quasi-legal medical-marijuana market.
The board expects the new stores to capture just 13 percent of the total market at first, and 25 percent by the end of the first year. But they expect the share to grow, and they will adjust production limits upward along with it.
The most significant change Wednesday from previous versions of the rules might be new curbs on potential monopolies.
Each production and processing site requires a separate license, and a single company and the people behind it would be limited to three producer licenses and three processor licenses. Retailers, who must be separate, could have only up to three locations and only a third of the stores in any one city or county.
The restrictions should widen the opportunities to take part in the newly legal industry, said Phil Wayt, a lobbyist for potential growers. Holcomb, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it would help keep smaller operations from being shut out of the market.
Holcomb hopes the new details, along with the announcement last week of a hands-off approach by federal law enforcement, will convince wary local governments not to stand in the way.
Many cities and counties are taking a wait-and-see approach. Tacoma and Lakewood show contrasts.
Tacoma is moving to create zoning rules, possibly as soon as November. City Councilman Ryan Mello said the voters have spoken.
“I don’t see, and I don’t see my colleagues, looking to ban them or making it overly onerous as long as they’re in appropriate areas,” said Mello, who doesn’t want businesses concentrated in any one place.
Locations are limited by the law’s buffer zones keeping the operations at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks and other child-friendly areas. But the latest rules expanded where they can go by defining the buffer as a driving or walking distance rather than a straight line.
The liquor board has the ability to avoid licensing in a way that would concentrate companies in a single area, director Rick Garza said.
Lakewood’s mayor, Don Anderson, said he expects the city to shut down businesses that violate federal law.
Federal law forbids pot even after the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision not to sue Washington and Colorado over their regulations.
“What’s going to happen if a municipality or a state allows something and the winds of change blow the next election cycle and somebody decides to enforce the law?” Anderson said.
DOJ has advised its agents and prosecutors to leave enforcement of pot laws to state and local police, as long as regulators keep the drug from going to children or out of state, among other caveats.
State Liquor Board members said that’s exactly what their regulations will do.
“We are making history,” board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said. “This hasn’t been done in this way any place in the entire world.”
Breakdown of marijuana stores by city, county. Back page