Washington state has had its ups and downs since it first legalized recreational cannabis in 2012. The first recreational outlets didn't actually open until 2014, and only then did it begin to see the windfall of tax revenue from the new industry. Then legalization in neighboring Oregon started eating into its market because that state's lower taxes on marijuana. The recent news isn't all bad, though. The state was the focus of a recent landmark study that found that legalization in the state did not make it easier for teens to access marijuana. In short, it's in the midst of some really important debates on the social, economic and taxation issues confronting the legal states.
Civilized recently sat down with Peter Holmes - the Seattle City Attorney who has played a central role in the creation and regulation of the legalized market. He was a prime sponsor of Initiative 502, passed by voters in 2012 to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. And as City Attorney, he has since pushed for continuous policy changes to improve the evolving legalized market. In our conversation, Holmes touched on the strides that the state has made since legalization, where he thinks the state is headed from here, and the vexing problem of unlicensed delivery services. Here is an edited and condensed version of that chat.
What are your feelings on the developments that have taken place in Washington since legalization?
I think that, with a slow on-ramp, we are really well-positioned for a mature, legal, regulated system. I think that we have done it the right way, with the only caveat being that it has taken us longer than expected, and consequently, the illegal market has had a longer reprieve, if you will. They had a longer stay of execution. In that sense, some voters might say they didn't get the benefit of their bargain. "I voted for regulation because prohibition's not working, so where's the upside?"
Well, the answer is, we took the time to do it correctly, with some hiccups along the way. We were designing the airplane as we were flying it. It'll be four years this November since the vote, and we may just be getting to maximum capacity, at least the maximum planned capacity, this November. Four years after the vote.
We're still maybe at two-dozen or so stores in Seattle. That's probably about half of our allotment. We've allocated for 48 right now. So we really just have a little over 50 percent of what our allocation is for legal retail stores. And when you've got unmet demand like that, that's the last toehold that the illegal market has.
How about the issue of cannabis delivery services, which have remained illegal, even in a state like Washington that has legal cannabis? For example, if pizza went from being illegal to legal, we wouldn't suddenly have a problem with pizza delivery, so why does the same not hold true for cannabis?
There are so many things wrong with that analogy. First off, one of the obvious differences is that it's a controlled substance. But the main thing is, remember, there are entrepreneurs who are risking their capital and are playing by the rules, are paying taxes and submitting to regulation.
The unlicensed delivery services are, by definition, unregulated and untaxed, and they can undersell the licensed stores. So, if you just pick up one of the ads on Craigslist or wherever else you hear about it - let's say you're a visitor to Seattle and you're in your hotel room and you dial it up and someone delivers on your door. Then that's a cab ride you're not going to take to a 502 store and purchase the product from them and take it back to your room.
[Unlicensed delivery services] have completely circumvented the legal system, they have avoided paying taxes, and they have undercut the market for the guy that has submitted to regulation.
And what if a brick-and-mortar cannabis business was to establish their own delivery system?
Right now, under state law, it's still not allowed. The mayor and I did propose a test pilot project to test how licensing might work in the city of Seattle, but the legislature didn't give us that authority.
Believe me, I think that delivery services are promising, potentially harm-reductive, something in the best interests of public safety. [They may] also be in the best interests of medical users, or people who might have mobility problems. It is a good thing. I have nothing against a delivery service. I am only opposed to unlicensed delivery services. It's got to be a part of the system.
It's just like trying to find a place for people who don't have a home, a private residence, where they can smoke. We need to figure out where can people smoke out of public view. We need to find delivery services, other things that we do for other commodities, including alcohol. We have alcohol delivery services. There's no reason in the world why we shouldn't have legal, licensed answers to all of those problems.
Anytime you're simply relying on prohibition, you're going down the wrong path.
A cannabis user might venture to say, 'Tobacco kills many people per year, while cannabis kills none, and yet we don't have a problem with people smoking tobacco in public. Why should cannabis be treated any differently?'
I actually agree with that. I think that we will come to a point in time where most people are not offended by the smell of marijuana any more than they will be by the puff of smoke. The difference is, we don't allow people to drink in public. That is an inebriating substance, cannabis is. So, for now, that is the social norm in a changing society. If that is the quid pro quo we need for now, in order for legalization to take place, I think that's a fair deal.
Stephen Calabria is a New York City-based journalist who also serves as a Media Advisor for nyvapeshop.com.
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