Politics & Government

State’s main marijuana man moving on

Randy Simmons
Randy Simmons — Courtesy

Randy Simmons, the unsung bureaucrat who managed the creation of the state’s legal marijuana system, is moving on.

The thrill of making history is gone, said Simmons, deputy director of the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. That, and his wife got tired of getting dragged to look at new pot shops and farms, he joked.

“It was a hard legislative session. I felt tired of all the battles going on,” said Simmons, who is leaving the LCB at the end of August to take a senior administrator’s job at the state Department of Revenue.

The nascent industry seemed to change after stores opened last summer, he said. “With people hiring lobbyists, it shifted from ‘let’s do something exciting’ to like everything else in American society, ‘what can I get for me?’”

Much of the tension came from the Legislature’s task of folding the largely unregulated medical-marijuana system into the regulated recreational one. That led to acrimony, particularly from people selling medical marijuana.

“There’s this feeling in the medical world that they’re entitled. Some on the medical side are truly compassionate about the patients. Some are truly compassionate about making money,” he said.

Simmons, 63, was known as a calm problem-solver at the LCB when voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012, legalizing a state-regulated, seed-to-sale system untested on the planet. Voters handed the job of implementing I-502 to the LCB.

Simmons said he’s looking forward to a less stressful job on the downslope of his career, overseeing IT, human resources and finances for the Department of Revenue.

As the LCB’s marijuana-project director, he oversaw 11 in-house teams researching how best to legalize weed.

Simmons characterized himself not as a policymaker, but a traffic cop taking signals from three LCB board members appointed by the governor.

“He was the technician who turned the policy into concrete provisions,” said Alison Holcomb, chief author of I-502. “Randy did a fantastic job of embracing an impossible task.”

When the initiative was approved, the federal ban on all pot loomed, said Holcomb, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. She didn’t know if the LCB was going to carry out the will of the voters. “It seemed Randy very explicitly set a tone that we are going to take it seriously and bring all our resources to bear on doing it well.”

Hilary Bricken, a lawyer representing pot merchants, said Simmons was a great ambassador for government. “He was such a student of the game. He cared. He knew the players,” Bricken said.

Simmons also exuded a low-key humility. “He’s gentle and deliberate,” said LCB Director Rick Garza, who called Simmons his right-hand and valued counsel.

Simmons said his chief regret was that the LCB didn’t move faster to license merchants. But he said the agency’s 20 investigators were overwhelmed at first by more than 7,000 applications.

For that and being burdensome with rules — mainly written, he notes, before we knew if the feds would allow us to go ahead with our experiment — Simmons gave himself a C-minus grade.

But Washington’s strict rules are one reason it’s not being sued, like Colorado, by neighboring states complaining that legal weed is leaking across their borders, Garza said.

For the care taken with approving safe doses and childproof packaging for edible products, Simmons gave the agency an A-plus.

Holcomb and Bricken criticized the state’s lottery system for retail stores, which delayed openings as some winners viewed the limited number of licenses as “golden tickets” to be held or sold.

But Simmons defended the lottery, saying the state lacked criteria for running a merit-based system of awarding licenses.

And his chief lesson from the job? “If there’s anything I learned in the last three years it’s that both (those for and against legalization) live in myths. This plant is not going to solve every disease. On the anti-side, it’s really time for people to stop listening to what Richard Nixon said, declaring this a disaster for the youth of this nation,” said.

Simmons said he’s still not tried legal pot. He prefers, he said, to be in control of his faculties.

For those who’ve visited his Olympia office and seen its white boards adorned with quotes from Goethe and TV’s “Kung Fu” series, there’s only one still standing. It’s from rock band Jethro Tull and says, “I have no time for Time magazine or Rolling Stone.”

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