Unchecked pot dispensaries are undoing I-502

A mile-long stretch of Sixth Avenue in Tacoma has become a veritable Marijuana Road, with two licensed pot retailers, two illegal “medical” dispensaries and another illegal dispensary apparently on the way. Neighbors aren’t happy.

This is a microcosm of what is happening in other parts of Western Washington: New legal enterprises are being strangled by outlaw commercial dispensaries as local officials – including the Tacoma City Council – watch idly from the sidelines. Washington’s pioneering attempt to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana is becoming a travesty in the process.

Blame for the jungle of dispensaries in Western Washington stretches all the way down from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan to Washington lawmakers to local city councils. Had the pot shops been nipped in the bud four years ago, as they were in Eastern Washington and some other states, they would not now be choking out legitimate enterprises that are trying to play by the rules.

Entrepreneurs who want to open a legal retail marijuana store under Initiative 502, approved by the voters in 2012, have to clear hurdles. They must pay a $250 license application and undergo a criminal background check. If approved, they must buy taxed and inspected marijuana, prohibit its use on their premises, open their books to state inspectors and not to sell the drug to anyone under 21.

But they are being forced to compete with bootleg operations that sometimes do none of that and can sell marijuana at half the price.

Unchecked, this will make a joke of I-502. In King County, for example, the state Liquor Control Board plans to allow 61 licensed stores. As they open, they face – at latest estimate – 250 to 350 unregulated dispensaries. The board plans eight licensed stores for Tacoma; they face at least 40 existing dispensaries. Who knows how many more will open under the City Council’s tolerance policy?

Given the lack of spine on the part of local policymakers and the region’s U.S. attorney, it’s up to state lawmakers to make a Hail Mary play. They failed last year to rein in the dispensaries. If they fail again this year, it’s hard to see how I-502 will wind up as anything but a cover for wide open dope-dealing, including expanded deliveries to adolescents.

Lawmakers should first give the lie to the dispensaries’ constantly repeated claim that they’re all about providing “patients” with “medicine.”

Some operators indeed chiefly serve genuinely sick people. But any honest person in the business acknowledges that most customers of most dispensaries are garden-variety recreational users. Healthy young men are typical.

The “green cards” that transform party-tokers into patients are commonly sold, often for $100 or less, by non-M.D.s. Washington’s extremely lax law has allowed a relative handful of marijuana-friendly nurse-practitioners and naturopaths to issue large numbers of medical authorizations to virtually all comers for vague complaints of pain. Tell the right quack you’ve got a sore elbow, write the check and you’ve got your green card.

Lawmakers can solve much of the dispensary problem upstream, by amending the law to tighten the prescribing process.

They should limit marijuana authorization to serious, well-documented conditions. Just as important, they should step up enforcement against the green card wholesalers. As things stand, the state will bust a Doctor Feelgood only when it gets a complaint, which rarely happens.

Efforts to control dispensaries are inevitably met with protests that patients are being targeted. That’s an absurd fear if the Legislature is simply ensuring that marijuana is being authorized for strictly medical reasons – that the patients really are patients.

The real fear is that the Legislature will end the sham and the illicit profits. But that sham is strangling the voter-approved, legal industry in its cradle. Lawmakers have a clear choice this winter: Tolerate a “medical” black market or give a legal, regulated marijuana a chance to succeed.