Nearly a year and a half after voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana, Washington state has almost no legalized recreational marijuana.
This is largely because Washington — unlike Colorado — did not build its recreational marijuana system on its medical marijuana infrastructure, instead electing to create an entirely new system from the ground up. Facing the bureaucratic nightmare that resulted, producers, processors, and retailers have had trouble obtaining the necessary licenses and retail, warehouse, and growing space.
The Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) plans to issue between 15 and 20 retail licenses on July 7. Stores will be allowed to open the next day if they're ready, though it's unclear just how many stores will be. Of the 2,600 people who applied for growing licenses last fall, only 79 have been approved — and many of them aren't ready to sell, since marijuana requires several months of growing time.
In addition, scientists at Analytical 360, one of two labs in the state certified to test samples of recreational marijuana for purchase — a requirement for anyone who wants to sell recreational marijuana legally — have seen few samples. As of Saturday, only two licensed growers had turned in weed for testing, with one seller reportedly planning to bring in samples this week.
However, this shortage is not expected to impact medical marijuana users, who will still be able to buy from medical marijuana dispensaries that, while technically illegal, are generally tolerated. However, medical marijuana has its own problems. In February, the state's House of Representatives passed HB 2149, which would essentially eliminate medical marijuana, mandating the closure of medical marijuana dispensaries by May 1, 2015, and completely eliminating home growing by 2020. The law failed to pass before the end of the legislative session in March, bringing medical marijuana advocates some relief.
"I wholeheartedly believe that the process will work in time," says Alex Cooley, vice-president of the medical cannabis grower Solstice. "But how this is rolling out definitely demonstrates the large amount of fallout that's going to occur, and I don't want to be part of that fallout."
'What the future holds for medical marijuana dispensaries, I don't know. Under the law, they're not supposed to exist.'
Solstice has not attempted to become a recreational dispensary.
"We couldn't just license medical marijuana growers to become recreational growers because no one even knows where they all are and who they all are — they can only estimate how many there are around the state," Brian Smith, a spokesman for the WSLCB, tells VICE News. "What the future holds for medical marijuana dispensaries, I don't know. Under the law, they're not supposed to exist."
When asked about the WSLCB's decision to cap the amount of legal grow space in the state at 2 million square feet, Smith emphasized the WSLCB's responsibility to uphold Justice Department stipulations and prevent diversion — the leakage of marijuana from a state where it's legal, like Washington, to a state where it isn't, such as Oregon. The WSLCB hopes to prevent diversion by producing just enough marijuana for Washington. With the latest square footage limitation, the WSLCB "tried to hit the sweet spot of not producing too much marijuana, and not too little, either," Smith says.
Smith is confident that the system will work itself out eventually, if only in terms of pricing and supply. "You know that when you go into a recreational store, that it's gonna be tested, it's gonna be clean, and it's legal to be able to purchase it that way," he says. "And I think people will, over time, do that. And as Washington's supply is gonna be robust, over time, that's gonna drive the price down. It's gonna be competitive."
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