5 Years In, Washington Regulators Considering Changes To Legal Marijuana Rules

Juan Aguilar, left, assists customers Bill, right, and Nize Nylen and their son Russell shop for edible marijuana products in the Herban Legends pot shop in Seattle. Five years after Washington launched its pioneering legal marijuana market, officials are proposing their most ambitious overhaul yet of the way the industry is regulated, with plans for boosting minority ownership of pot businesses, spreading out oversight among a range of state agencies, and letting the smallest cannabis producers increase the size of the operations in an effort to help them become more competitive. CREDIT: ELAINE THOMPSON/AP
Juan Aguilar, left, assists customers Bill, right, and Nize Nylen and their son Russell shop for edible marijuana products in the Herban Legends pot shop in Seattle. CREDIT: ELAINE THOMPSON/AP

Read On

BY GENE JOHNSON / AP

Five years after Washington launched its pioneering legal marijuana market, officials are proposing an overhaul of the state’s industry rules, with plans for boosting minority ownership of pot businesses, paving the way for home deliveries of medical cannabis and letting the smallest growers increase the size of their operations to become more competitive.

Liquor and Cannabis Board Director Rick Garza detailed the proposals — part of what the board calls “Cannabis 2.0” — in an interview with The Associated Press. It’s an effort to picture what the legal marijuana market will look like over the next five years, after spending the past five years largely regulating by reaction as the difficulties of building an industry from infancy absorbed the agency’s attention.

“We’ve typically been so challenged with the issues of the day we haven’t been looking out long-term to determine what the future looks like,” Garza said.

The board has been freeing up its bandwidth by coordinating with other agencies to share the responsibility of regulating the market, such as having the Department of Ecology oversee the certification of marijuana testing labs and the Department of Financial Institutions examine the sometimes complicated ownership structures of licensed cannabis businesses.

One big-picture issue the board could rethink is whether to abandon the state’s seed-to-sale marijuana tracking program, which has long been beset by software issues, sometimes grinding business to a halt, in favor of a system where businesses report their transactions to the board and are then audited. Another is whether to prepare to allow marijuana exports, as Oregon did this year, in the event the federal government approves it.

For the next session of the Legislature, the board has proposed two bills. One would create what some critics describe as a long-overdue “social equity” program, encouraging greater ownership of marijuana businesses by minorities, women and military veterans. Part of the rationale of legalizing marijuana in Washington state in 2012 was to remedy the disproportionate effect the drug war has had on people of color, but minority ownership of cannabis businesses in the state remains paltry.

Edibles are displayed at the Shango Cannabis shop on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales beginning at midnight in Portland, Oregon, Oct. 1, 2015. CREDIT: STEVE DIAPOLA/REUTERS

Edibles displayed at the Shango Cannabis shop on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales beginning at midnight in Portland, Oregon, Oct. 1, 2015. CREDIT: STEVE DIAPOLA/REUTERS

While Washington is not currently issuing any more marijuana licenses, 11 of the more than 500 retailers have surrendered their licenses, Garza said. Under the board’s proposal, those could be reissued, or, if cities or counties agree to increase the number of pot shops within their boundaries, new licenses could be granted — this time, to participants in the social equity program.

Businesses would be eligibl