Tri-Citians worry about new pot laws many questions, few answers

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldDecember 9, 2012 

Tim Adams knows the legalization of marijuana in Washington has brought new customers to his Kennewick store.

He knows because some have asked what the hole on the side of a glass pipe is for while shopping at Hippies on Columbia Drive. For those who don't know their way around such a pipe, it's for clearing out the smoke and for cleaning the pipe.

Possessing a certain amount of marijuana became legal under state law for adults 21 and over last week, but Adams said he isn't planning to paint over the door sign that says, "It's a water pipe, not a bong," or change the labels on smoking accessories that specify they are for tobacco use only.

The 64-page initiative, which voters passed in November by 56 percent, has created more questions than the law answers.

The biggest question state officials and Tri-Citians have is what the federal government's response will be regarding the state legalizing a substance that's illegal under federal law.

Though the U.S. Department of Justice has issued a statement saying marijuana still is illegal under federal law, it continues to review the initiative and has not provided a formal response to the state, said Mikhail Carpenter, a state Liquor Control Board spokesman.

In the meantime, selling and growing marijuana remains illegal while the state Liquor Control Board drafts the rules to govern the new licensesthat will be required for those activities. The board has until Dec. 1 next year, and officials expect they will need all that time to develop a system.

Changing mentality

Adams said he is amazed marijuana was legalized in his lifetime.

The majority of voters clearly are done with the old-school mentality about pot, he said, adding he hopes the new law will remove more of the stigma and solve problems medical marijuana patients currently face.

Adams, who served as a Marine Corps lance corporal from 1983-89, knows about the problems first-hand -- he had some of his belongings confiscated in 2005 and was wrongly convicted for growing marijuana by Benton County Superior Court in 2007.

A state appeals court ruled in 2009 that Adams did have the right to grow the marijuana as a primary caregiver under the state's Medical Marijuana Act and that he should have been given the opportunity to show his permit.

As a result of the wrongful arrest, he became unemployed, homeless and estranged from business partners and family until he met his future wife, Tammy Adams. She posted bail to keep him out of jail until the appeal was resolved.

The couple opened Hippies in 2006, where they sell the glass pipes Tim Adams creates, along with other pipes, water pipes and tie-dye.

While Hippies has seen a "marked" increase in business thanks to I-502, Tim Adams said he voted against it because of imperfections in it -- including the DUI provision and tax structure. He said he expects lawyers to benefit the most from I-502.

At Lazy Eye in Richland, store manager Zebadiah Hindman agrees that the state law is "foggy" and comes with loopholes. He added that it will take time before the legal structure is in place that sets out the rules.

The uncertainty with the new law is why Lazy Eye isn't changing its focus from selling tobacco-smoking accessories, he said.

Lazy Eye, which also sells locally made glass accessories, including pipes, pendants and belt buckles, as well as clothing, has seen a large increase in customers and sales since Election Day, Hindman said.

At smoke shops Players Glass in Pasco and Rock-N-Roll-It in Richland, co-owner Clay Looney said his stores enjoyed a 27 percent increase in sales since the law passed.

More customers are buying higher-quality glass pipes, said Looney, who owns the stores with Garnet Christensen. Until this fall, most people would buy something cheap and more disposable, so the new trend benefits the local and regional glass artists who make the pieces Looney sells.

A new legal industry

Because marijuana is a new industry, it means there are a lot of details to determine, said Carpenter, the state Liquor Control Board spokesman. For example, the initiative allows the Liquor Control Board to limit the amount of marijuana a retailer can have on hand.

I-502 created three new licenses -- for the growers; for those who process and package marijuana; and for the marijuana retailer who will sell to adults 21 and older.

It remains illegal for anyone younger than 21 to possess the drug. Adults 21 and older can possess up to 1 ounce of useable marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused product in solid form or 72 ounces of a marijuana-infused product in liquid form. Possessing anything more is a crime.

Consumption of marijuana is illegal in public places such as parks, businesses, streets and vehicles, state officials said.

The Liquor Control Board has opened public comment for rule making for the producer license, Carpenter said. After the comment period, the rules will be drafted and submitted to the public for more comments.

The initiative writers used the former state liquor store system as a model, Carpenter said. As with spirits licenses, local authorities will have the chance to comment before licenses are issued.

The new state law creates a potential opportunity for businesses around the state, Looney said.

For example, there could be tours of legal marijuana growing operations, just like there are tours of wineries, he said.

While I-502 is very much on the radar of area cities, most are looking for more information from the state.

While the West Richland City Council has briefly discussed I-502, Police Chief Brian McElroy said the city council is holding off any action at this point. The topic isn't likely to come up until January or February.

McElroy said Tri-City prosecutors and law enforcement officials are collaborating. But more guidance is needed from the state before cities can determine what they will do.

Richland officials are preparing information for the city council about the new marijuana law, said Tom Lampson, Richland city attorney.

There has been no discussion about business licensing yet, he said.

However, the council in 2011 amended city code to say that "no license shall be issued ... for an activity that is illegal or unlawful under local, state or federal law."

Selling weed

Adams said he has no plans to become a marijuana dispensary. He said he would be too concerned about becoming a target for crime.

The gray areas will have to be defined before anyone is willing to sell weed, Tammy Adams said.

"Nobody wants to go to jail," she said.

JT, a medical marijuana patient who lives in Benton County and acts as a dispensary for other patients, said patients have encouraged him to consider becoming a marijuana retailer under I-502, but it would have to be economically viable.

He asked to remain anonymous because marijuana still is illegal in the federal government's eyes. That's also why he has reservations about the opportunities created by I-502.

A lot depends on what rules the state issues next year, he said.

He said he is also concerned rules may eventually change medical marijuana patients' ability to grow and sell pot. The current state law was created because there was no other outlet for patients to legally get marijuana, he said.

He expects to see patients' ability to grow marijuana shut down in favor of state dispensaries.

Marijuana isn't something Looney will consider selling at his existing smoke shops. Marijuana retail shops need to be stand alone like the former state liquor stores, he said.

But Looney said he won't close the door on being a retailer if the laws are appropriate and embraced by the community.

The state Office of Financial Management estimates a price of $12 per gram for state-approved marijuana. The medical marijuana dispensary prices vary between $10 to $15 per gram on average with some premium products above $15 per gram.

Adams said he is concerned that the black market will outsell the government-approved marijuana.

People won't buy the government-approved weed unless it is cheaper, better or more available, Adams said.

The initiative creates three excise taxes, each worth 25 percent of the selling price, on the sale from a licensed producer to a processor, from that processor to a retailer, and from the retailer to the consumer.

The tax structure in the law is not reasonable, Adams said. He said he would support a sales tax or a sin tax, but not the three different 25 percent excise taxes.

That's going to make it difficult for the government-approved marijuana to compete with the black market, he said.

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