People ask: “Why is Colorado so far ahead of us?!” At my law office in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, we hear our clients ask this question on a daily basis. It’s understandable. We here in Washington are slowly making our way through the process, while we watch Colorado residents already lining up around the block and hear of the Colorado government’s healthy addition to its tax coffers. So then, what accounts for the differences between our system and the Colorado model that allow them to move (or appear to move) so much faster than us?
Colorado and Washington have taken two very different paths toward legalization. Colorado had a “seed to sale” tracking system in place for several years prior to the Amendment 64 vote in 2012 to legalize cannabis at the state level. This exact system was approved by Washington voters in 2010.
However, former governor Christine Gregoire vetoed the part of the law that created regulated “dispensaries” in the Colorado sense of the word. The veto changed the course of Washington’s cannabis experiment. Here are three seemingly small differences that turn out to have a big impact on the speed of implementation.
Bartenders and home brewers
Colorado had a regulated, privatized marijuana system that was prevalent for at least five years prior to the legalization vote. So, when Colorado voters informed the lawmakers that they would now be overseeing the implementation of legalizing cannabis, they turned to the shops that were already operating — basically — within the letter of the law. Once the actual system of buyers and sellers was in place, it was really just a matter of what both parties were called for legal purposes.
Buyers were no longer “patients.” Dispensary owners no longer have to check for medical cards, only valid ID (and those with a Colorado ID can purchase more!). Finally, the dispensary owners would pay a small fee to reclassify as recreational-type entities. In other words, Colorado decided to be bartenders. They used what they had on hand to make something that had a different name, but was really only slightly different.
Washington, on the other hand, went the route of a brewer. They’ve decided to take the basic components of what they believe should produce their desired result, and try to get there on their own, because they don’t seem to trust what’s behind the bar at their local tavern. A strong majority of Washington lawmakers support significant limitations on medical cannabis, and the Washington State Liquor Control Board would prefer that collective gardens were eliminated entirely. Like any good home brewer, the Liquor Control Board never seems quite certain of the experiment’s ultimate outcome.
So, the first point is that it’s significantly easier to mix a beverage than brew one.
Can one directly sell the cannabis that they grow? Can they grow, infuse the product, and then sell it directly to the public through a store front? If the answer is yes, the state allows “vertical integration.” Ford Motor Company tried this business model at one point, and went as far as to buy fields of rubber-producing plants that ultimately went into the tires on their cars.
Colorado allows retail dispensary owners to have a grow operation on premises. This means that once the Colorado dispensary owners reclassified as recreational cannabis purveyors, the actual transition was seamless. There were shops with registered product selling inventory and registered plants growing to soon replace that product.
Washington was concerned with monopoly power within the industry, so it decided to prohibit individuals who sell product from any sort of ownership in companies that do anything else to produce, package or modify cannabis.
This division means it will take time for the market to organize itself. Think about the very first day of the Hunger Games. In other words, those in the market attempt to figure out exactly their position within the newly-created regulated process.
Hot lava: The 1000-foot rule
I’ve seen bored children sometimes play a game where they must avoid certain tiles on a floor of a certain color, ostensibly because the chosen color is “hot lava.” What ensues is a chaotic jumping from tile to tile in hopes of avoiding imaginary scalding. The 1000-foot buffer rules within I-502 take the hot lava game to a whole new level.
In Colorado, dispensaries must be 1000 feet away from school zones.
In Washington, retail shops must be located 1000 feet away from schools … and arcades, recreation centers and daycares. Oh yes, and also libraries, transit centers and playgrounds.
There are many responsible medical marijuana providers, some of whom I am acquainted with here in Seattle. They take best practices seriously, and in some cases are probably already compliant with the majority of I-502 provisions. However, no amount of careful planning could have predicted that a public library three blocks away would bring the propriety of a store’s operation into question.
The last issue is merely a real estate problem: There’s a lot more hot lava in Washington.
For a variety of reasons that elude even those of us watching from the inside of the process, Colorado and Washington took a different approach to the same question, and these differences are playing out. Not to worry though. Ultimately, it’s exciting to see these different approaches play out, just as our vanquished Super Bowl foes walked a different path to the same destination