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Highs and Lows of Legal Pot

November 10, 2015

When Washington’s first recreational pot shops opened in July 2014, there was considerable excitement. But the beginnings of the state’s marijuana marketplace didn’t go so smoothly. Only weeks in, consumers complained about long lines, high prices and very little selection. Supply was so short that some stores opened for only a few hours a day. Growers and retailers lost money, government officials began to scramble for answers, and those who opposed Initiative 502 watched in disapproval as many of their criticisms seemed to be legitimized.

Inside Bud Nation in White Center. Pot businesses have contributed more than $130 million in tax revenue to the state. That’s still well short of its $560 million annual prediction from 2012.

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Fast forward to today, and things seem to be looking much better. More than 200 recreational stores are open throughout the state, money is starting to flow into the coffers in Olympia and the federal government has thus far kept its promise to let Washington work out the kinks of this fascinating experiment.

But not every development has been positive. Data recently released by the Washington State Patrol’s toxicology lab shows that stoned driving may be on the rise. Analysis of blood samples revealed that, for the third year running, the percentage of impaired drivers with active THC in their systems increased. Law enforcement officials are taking action.

“With new laws and new trends, our roadways are different and we need to respond to that change,” says Lt. Rob Sharpe, Impaired Driving Section Commander for the Washington State Patrol. “We’re committed to keeping our roads safe for drivers.”

The state has trained more than 200 Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) to assist with identifying marijuana impairment in the field, and have also trained more than 2,000 officers in a two-day intensive course known as Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement, or ARIDE.

Officers undergoing the state’s two-day ARIDE, or Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement, in Bellevue. More than 2,000 officers have gone through this cannabis-centered training.

Police have new legal tools to work with, including mandatory blood testing for anyone suspected of being impaired by marijuana or other drugs. Much of eastern Washington has also instituted an electronic warrant system. This process uses email and on-call judges to shorten the critical time between a traffic stop and a blood draw, during which a suspect’s active THC level could drop below the state’s limit of five nanograms per milliliter of blood.

But Douglas Hiatt, a criminal defense attorney in Seattle, and many community activists feel these changes are illegal and not based in scientific fact. 

“It’s a huge invasion of privacy,” says Hiatt. “And besides that, we know from scientific study that marijuana doesn’t cause impairment the way other drugs do; certainly not at a level anywhere near as low as five nanograms."


*as of August, 2015

Hiatt contends that the state’s dramatic increase in blood testing is responsible for the higher numbers, and they don’t reflect the true realities of road safety. But lab results also show a rise in THC among drivers involved in fatal crashes, and until those numbers decrease, the state intends to more aggressively enforce marijuana DUIs.

Samples at the Washington State Toxicology Lab awaiting analysis for THC and other substances. Washington is now collecting blood from any driver who appears to be under the influence of drugs.

One of the main benefits touted by Initiative 502 advocates was revenue generation, and so far the state is below its original projections. The Office of Financial Management predicted as much as $560 million a year in taxes in a 2012 report; the state has brought in just over $130 million in the first year plus.

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But there are signs of improvement, as a new tax structure designed to boost sales has gone into effect. Versus the original structure, which levied 25 percent each at the production, processing and retail stages, the new tax charges 37 percent to the retailer only. With this and other changes to come, the state predicts $420 million in taxes over the 2015–2017 biennium, and more than $700 million for 2017–2019.

The other change that will improve revenue is the regulatory overhaul of medical marijuana. Rick Garza and the newly minted Liquor and Cannabis Control Board have had their eye on the quasi-legal medical market for years. “Because there was no regulation, we were seeing a proliferation of these dispensaries throughout the state,”  says Garza. “I think we were also seeing a lot of sales to recreational users.”  

Many retailers, such as Alex Cooley, Vice President of Solstice Growers in Seattle, also feel the regulation is long overdue. “It was becoming a front for open-air drug dealing,” says Cooley. “Some aspects still need to change, like the cooperative growing laws and how close they can be to recreational stores, but overall the changes were a win for the industry.”

Better Day Gardens dispensary in White Center recently received a surprise visit by Seattle officials threatening to revoke their business license if they didn’t submit to an inspection. Small cooperatives claim they won’t be able to adapt to the new laws and their patients will suffer.

New regulations under Senate Bill 5052 roll medical cannabis into the recreational system by July 2016, establishing a merit-based system for licensing that favors established, larger retailers and medical providers, and creating a Department of Health-managed patient database to keep records of who has legitimate medical concerns. Legitimate, smaller medical providers claim they and their patients are the ones feeling the pinch. Andrew Cornwall, owner of Better Day Gardens medical marijuana dispensary in White Center says the new laws are only interested in money, not patients, and that the laws and taxes (patients who register for the database will have only the sales tax waived, not the excise tax) will make it impossible for poor and ill patients to afford medical marijuana. 

“I’m going to have to choose between helping people and paying rent,” says Cornwall. “It is not about the patient at all.”

Until marijuana law changes at the federal level, officials say we can expect more changes in the years and months to come, as Washington’s legal marijuana experiment rolls on.


For more on the legalization of marijuana and its effects, watch the recent First Run Features release, Evergreen, produced and written by Nils Cowan and a team of Seattle filmmakers: iTunesDVD.


Made possible in part by

Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

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