A Seattle police officer hands out Doritos and rules for marijuana users… (Joshua Trujillo / seattlepi.com )
SEATTLE — Recreational pot users in Washington state would have as many as 334 stores where they would be able to buy marijuana for their smoking pleasure, and the first could open as early as next spring under new regulations released this week.
But as one of the first legal markets in the United States for the sale of recreational pot begins to take shape in the Pacific Northwest, future producers, sellers and smokers have more questions than there are answers now that their once-illicit industry has gone straight.
Advocates of medical marijuana — which has been legal in Washington since 1998 but is largely unregulated — worry that the new recreational market could threaten the supply that sick people depend on. Some growers who support outdoor pot farms worry that the new regulations favor indoor growing operations that they deride as environmentally inappropriate.
"A controversy that will certainly develop is whether cities and counties can outlaw marijuana," said Ryan Espegard, a Seattle attorney who specializes in cannabis regulation. "And can employers or landlords ban the use on premises? Can you be fired for using in your spare time? These will be playing out in the next year, next two years."
For now, though, state and federal officials have begun to bring some clarity to more specific issues involving marijuana production and use in Washington state, where voters in November approved recreational use.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not interfere with voter-approved laws in Washington state and Colorado that allow recreational pot use.
Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, a Seattle-based medical pot cultivation company, lauded the Obama administration's statement as evidence that the federal government is now "pro-regulation, which is a very sensible approach, a very logical approach, to this emerging industry."
Although marijuana is still a federally controlled substance, possession and use became legal in Washington last December. State officials have until Dec. 1 to create key regulations.
On Wednesday, the state Liquor Control Board released proposed regulations for the marijuana marketplace.
Officials looked at population density and geography in deciding how many retail stores would be allowed and where they could be located. Of the 334 that could be licensed statewide, King County would get 61, about third of which would be permitted in Seattle.
Rural counties such as Garfield, Ferry and Columbia would get just one shop each.
If officials looked only at population, San Juan County also deserved only one retailer, but the new rules would allow three. The reason? The county includes three large islands. "We gave each island a store, or you'd have people on boats" out shopping for pot, said Randy Simmons, deputy director of the Liquor Control Board.
But the board massaged an earlier rule interpreting how close marijuana businesses could be to places frequented by young people, like schools and parks. Pot can be sold only to buyers 21 or older. Originally, the voter-approved 1,000-foot buffer zone was measured in a straight line.
In the new regulations, the board decided to measure a so-called common path of travel, which "does solve some problems," Espegard said. "Before, you could have a [potential] store on one side of a river and a school on the other and still be prohibited."
The proposed rules would also require child-resistant packaging and outline defined serving sizes and package limits for marijuana sold in solid forms. Products would be required to be lab-tested and approved for strength and purity. All license applicants would have to undergo criminal background checks.
The state also capped the total marijuana production at 40 metric tons in 2014 and limited farms to a maximum of 30,000 square feet, or less than an acre.
To Cooley, whose company plans to apply for a license to expand from medical marijuana production into the recreational market, the limit on farm size creates difficulties for producers.
"The reason the Liquor Control Board has done that is to prevent a monopoly, which is understandable," Cooley said. But it "puts a cap on the revenues of producers."
He complained that a retailer who sells marijuana and marijuana products can grow the business according to demand.
But capping farm size, he said, "disproportionately limits the success of producers."
Simmons said that he had heard arguments that the cap would be unfair to outdoor growers, who get one or two harvests each year compared with indoor growers "who get four harvests out of that same 30,000 square feet" and consume large amounts of electricity.
"We have a lot of people to please — the people in the industry, the people in law enforcement, the people in the prevention community — and then we had to guess what the federal government was going to do," Simmons said. "We had to guess what the optimum size is….
"This is a shot in the dark. It's never been done. Trying to exactly determine market forces in a market that doesn't exist is not easy."