Official advice to pot merchants in Pierce County: Keep it illegal.
Unless the Pierce County Council lifts its ban on legal marijuana shops, would-be marijuana sellers trying to play by the state’s rules will remain out of luck. And traffickers who flout the rules will continue to flourish.
Initiative 502, enacted by the voters in 2012, was a game attempt to replace the state’s black market in marijuana with a regulated legal market. Under the initiative, a would-be merchant who passes a criminal background check could open a licensed marijuana store subject to supervision by the state Liquor Control Board.
A licensed store is forbidden from selling to anyone under 21 – and the board is checking, as evidenced by the sting operation that busted two such stores in Tacoma last month. Legitimate operations pay significant taxes. The shops can sell only inspected marijuana grown only at state-licensed sites. The state tries to keep criminals out of the loop, though all sales remain criminalized under largely unenforced federal laws.
Given that criminal marijuana trafficking already pervades the state, there’s a good argument for replacing the black market with a regulated one – assuming legitimate sales actually do eventually replace most of the illegal dealing.
But Pierce County, like the City of Puyallup, has turned the logic of the initiative on its head. The County Council in 2013 banned licensed marijuana stores. If this were a different world, and the ban would actually prevent marijuana from reaching juveniles and abusers, such a ban might make sense. But in the world we’ve got, the county policy is simply enforcing a status quo that leaves all marijuana sales in the hands of criminal operations.
“Criminal operations” emphatically includes the unlicensed dope dealers who hang a green cross on a storefront and start selling high-THC products under the pretext of medicine. Under state law, there is no such thing as lawful marijuana merchandising outside the system created by I-502. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes – as marijuana-friendly as any elected official in the country – has accurately described commercial dispensaries as “felony operations.”
Yet Pierce County, while banning the licensed stores, does little to shut down for-profit dispensaries. As of this week, an estimated 60 “medical marijuana” shops are doing business in the county’s jurisdiction. They have addresses; many of them advertise; they’d be sitting ducks if anyone were serious about enforcing the law. But Pierce County, like Tacoma, has let them operate under a de facto toleration policy.
As Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg said, “We have more and more of these green crosses popping up because we are doing nothing about it.”
She and at least two other councilmembers – the council’s Democrats – want to end the ban on legal stores. It’s time for the Republicans to join them.
It won’t be enough, though, to lift the law without cracking down on dispensaries and other traffickers.
As things stand, the people who try to open legitimate marijuana businesses are forced to compete with commercial dispensaries that aren’t supervised or licensed, that commonly sell to underage customers, and many pay no taxes. They never get targeted by sting operations.
A rational county policy would allow licensed retailing while eradicating the jungle of dispensaries. The current policy does the opposite. It serves no one but scofflaw profiteers.