Politics & Government

Hundreds more pot shops planned for Washington

State regulators want to allow up to 222 more marijuana stores in parts of Washington without local bans in a plan announced Wednesday that could double the number of pot shops in Tacoma and Thurston County.

The new stores could start opening as early as next month.

The state is trying to meet demand for medical marijuana now sold at unlicensed shops that, under a new law, must obtain licenses or close by July 1. While couching their estimates in uncertainty, state consultants now figure that medical shops sell 37 percent of all pot consumed in Washington.

The estimates released Wednesday from research firm BOTEC say another 35 percent probably comes from already licensed recreational stores — more than state officials had thought. Together, that raises the prospect that a majority of Washington’s weed might soon be regulated and taxed.

“With the inclusion of medical we might be somewhere around 50 or 60 percent after a year or two, so I think that’s putting a pretty large dent in the black market,” said Rick Garza, director for the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, “but I think we’re always going to have an illicit black market.”

$1.3 billion State consultants’ estimate for the size of the Washington marijuana market, with 37 percent at unlicensed medical shops, 35 percent at licensed recreational stores and 28 percent in the black market.

The board could vote Jan. 6 on a proposal by agency staff for new caps on the number of stores. Originally, the statewide cap was 334, with roughly 90 of those slots in areas with local bans. Around 190 stores have actually opened.

Wednesday’s staff recommendation calls for raising the cap by 66 percent, making 556 licenses available.

The proposal calls for awarding the new slots to areas without bans, doubling the number of slots available in Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and the rest of Thurston County, for up to 22 stores together. Caps would also double in Seattle and much of King County, for up to 114 stores across the state’s most-populous county.

In Pierce County, only Tacoma would see its slots double, to 16, giving the county up to 39 stores. Lakewood, Puyallup, Bonney Lake and University Place do not allow stores, and the fate of marijuana businesses in the unincorporated county could depend on a vote in 2016.

Garza said patients would keep their access to medical marijuana under the new system.

The 222 new licenses would be expected to go mainly to existing medical outlets, which must receive priority under the new law. Combine those with roughly 150 existing recreational shops that have received a medical endorsement on their licenses effective July 1, and Garza noted there could be more than 350 shops that serve patients.

“That gives you more points or access points for medical patients than they have today,” Garza said, “or what BOTEC identified as 331 storefront dispensaries that are operating today.”

BOTEC consultants verified 331 medical-marijuana locations and said there could be up to 403.

The contractors estimated medical stores collectively sell about $480 million worth of marijuana, out of the $1.3 billion they believe to be consumed annually in Washington.

King and Pierce counties together account for more than half of Washington medical-marijuana sales, consultants say: 38 percent in King and 16 percent in Pierce.

Many of those medical shops have applied for licenses. Of more than 1,100 applications, more than 90 have now made the cut for top-priority consideration and more than 40 for second-priority consideration, according to Becky Smith, who manages licensing for the cannabis board.

Priority status goes to medical stores that have been in operation since before 2013 or their employees, as long as the stores have paid taxes. To reach the top tier, an applicant must also have applied for a recreational license during the first round of applications in 2013.

With the state expansion, the main barrier to access to marijuana remains cities and counties, said industry lobbyist Ezra Eickmeyer, who wants the Legislature to put restrictions on local bans. Cities and counties say they should have local control.

“There are still over 2 million people in the state living in a jurisdiction with no retail access allowed, so it’s no small issue,” Eickmeyer said.

Lawmakers did give local governments a cut of state revenue as incentive to allow marijuana businesses. That plus the proposed caps could help discourage bans, said Vicki Christophersen, a lobbyist for licensed marijuana businesses.

The caps show there won’t be a “free-for-all” allowing “thousands of stores,” as some rumors had it, said Christophersen, executive director of the Washington CannaBusiness Association.

Some cities that worried about a “flood of new stores” have been considering moratoriums, said Candice Bock, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities.

“Having a definite number and a definite allocation may allay some of those concerns,” Bock said.

331Existing medical-marijuana stores verified by state consultants, who say there could be as many as 403.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826, @Jordan_Schrader