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Joseph O'Sullivan, Seattle Times
So many tweaks are needed to reform Washington state’s marijuana laws that state House lawmakers began Monday a two-day session of public hearings on nearly 20 separate bills.
The proposals range from fixes in the way marijuana is taxed and where it can be sold, to how local governments are allowed to ban it.
But the unifying theme Monday for the House Commerce and Gaming Committee was reforming the fledgling marijuana industry to bring into the system the state’s black-market growers and sellers.
“For us to get rid of the black market, it means that legal marijuana has to be accessible, both recreational and medical,” said Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, chairman of the committee.
Much of the discussion focused on proposals to ease zoning restrictions and therefore make it easier for pot retailers to open stores.
Right now, no stores are allowed to operate within 1,000 feet of playgrounds and public parks, child-care centers, libraries, public-transit centers, all-ages arcades and elementary or secondary schools.
That means more than 93 percent of the city of Kirkland’s commercial land is off-limits, Shelly Kloba, a council member for that city, told lawmakers.
Council members and the community “want to be able to site a retail store at an appropriate location in the city,” said Kloba, one of about 20 people who testified.
Others addressed how the state should regulate the way that local governments outlaw marijuana. One bill would require cities, towns and counties to put to a public vote any ban on marijuana growing or sales that elected officials have approved.
Those bans — which have been enacted in several places, including the cities of Fife, Kennewick and Wenatchee, and Clark and Pierce counties — could help the black market by making the legal product too difficult to get.
“A number of jurisdictions, the county council or city council, for whatever reason, are going against the will of their voters,” Ezra Eickmeyer of P & E Strategic Consulting told lawmakers. “Fixing that issue is priority No. 1.”
Other bills would streamline and reduce the current recreational-marijuana tax system to make the industry more competitive.
Three taxes of 25 percent each are levied on pot growers, processors and sellers; the proposal would reduce that to one layer of tax. Another proposal would create a path for sharing the tax revenues with local governments.
The discussion comes in a year when lawmakers are struggling to reconcile the state’s medical-marijuana system, which voters approved in 1998, and the recreational system, which voters approved in 2012.
Lawmakers are considering other proposals to merge those two systems, or allow them to coexist under a common framework. At Monday’s hearing, some of the hesitancy toward reform came from people wary of seeing the current medical market harmed.
Kari Boiter of Americans for Safe Access told lawmakers that while they have a lot to gain by passing reforms, they also have much to lose.
The wrong type of reform could eliminate helpful strains of marijuana or make the state ineligible for federal protections for states’ medical-marijuana laws, said Boiter, a legislative analyst for the advocacy organization.
Debra Hansen, a cancer survivor who suffers from arthritis, osteoporosis and other ailments, advocated for a proposal by patients that would make sure medical-marijuana dispensaries have qualified staff and treatments.
“We have to think of the quality of the products,” said Hansen, a Bremerton resident.
As for the particulars of marijuana-prescription standards, patient-client issues and other strictly medical issues, Rep. Hurst said another committee will deal with those issues.
But, “I’m convinced that before this session is over there will be licenses for medical marijuana,” Hurst said.
The House Commerce and Gaming Committee public hearing on the bills will continue Tuesday.