Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 at 05:16 PM
They came in suits and cowboy hats, with cropped gray hair and long ponytails, and they filled one room at Seattle City Hall and spilled into another, about 400 strong.
Some had waited decades for an event like this. Some thought they’d never see it. They were there to express views about the state’s new legal-marijuana law enacted last fall by Initiative 502.
“Wow, there’s one heckuva lot of interest in 502,” said Sharon Foster, chair of the Washington state Liquor Control Board, the state agency charged with implementing the new law. The crowd had started lining up three hours before the event.
Foster told audience members if they kept their remarks to two minutes they’d get a “brownie point.” That prompted several in the crowd to giddily ask, “What kind of brownie?”
Chris Marr, another liquor-board member, said, “When I was watching Cream at the Fillmore many years ago, I never envisioned this.”
The second of six statewide forums on legal marijuana, this was part rally, part policy conference.
Growers, breeders, sellers and advocates came out to push a variety of platforms. Some wanted the system to allow smaller growers. Others stressed the need for bigger breeding operations. Some begged to be taxed. Others said the law’s high taxes would drive customers to the black market.
Kevin Oliver, executive director of Washington NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), was one of the first to speak. “Indeed the whole world is watching,” Oliver said, noting he’d been interviewed by a popular French TV show before the forum.
Wearing a suit adorned with a gold pot leaf, Oliver first suggested the liquor board add “cannabis” to its name, which drew huge applause. He went on to call for both big and small growers. “Think Budweiser and microbrews,” he said.
John Eskola said he represented several small medical-marijuana growers. “We need to be part of it. This is a very emotional thing for me. The war is over. We won. Don’t punish us, take our money.”
Lobbyist Phil Wayt said the group he represented wants the state to follow the craft-beer model where there is no limit on the number of producers and processors.
Philip Dawdy of the Washington Cannabis Association warned that taxes are too high. They are set at 25 percent of the selling price at three different junctures in the growing-to-sales process. “You have to beat the black market in price. I don’t think you can do that with the 502 tax structure,” he said.
The most insightful comment, though, might have come from Sam Dodge when he told liquor-board members, “for you to figure out how to serve cannabis customers is the steepest learning curve I’ve seen.”
Washington’s new law, which allows those 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot, must be implemented by December. In theory, adults will then be able to walk into stores around the state and buy locally grown pot that is licensed, taxed and regulated by the state.
Early state estimates put retail prices at about $12 a gram. And stores will sell about 187,000 pounds of weed a year, the state figures, which would suddenly give the state a new $2 billion industry.
The new law calls for a seed-to-store closed marijuana market. No model exists for such a system.
Inundated with questions and opinions, the board decided it needed to go to the public on the issue.
And, lacking in weed expertise, the agency is soliciting help from private consultants in areas such as product standards and consumption validation.
Consumption estimates are crucial for the state in determining how big the system should be, how many growers it will need, and how many plants each will need to produce.
Estimating consumption is also fraught with political and legal issues, especially concerning the federal government, which bans all marijuana, and doesn’t want to see Washington’s legal pot leaking into other states.
“Everything flows from consumption,” said Foster in an interview before the forum. “We don’t want to overgrow because then it may go out of state; and we don’t want to undergrow because then the black market flourishes.”
In a news conference Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he wants a digital tracking system to insure that legal marijuana isn’t slipping into the black market.
Once the liquor board has a grasp on the size of the market, it will move to questions such as the number of licensed growers.
Some issues remain vexing. Now, merchants in the state’s legal medical marijuana business face one daunting obstacle: They can’t establish bank accounts because the federal government won’t insure banking with marijuana businesses. “That is a huge outstanding issue,” said agency head Pat Kohler.
Foster vowed the liquor board — or liquor-and-cannabis board — will have a tightly controlled system in place as mandated by Initiative 502.
“We will be the first state in the world to adopt a licensed, regulated, disciplined, distribution market, I think in world history,” Inslee said.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or email@example.com
About Initiative 502
Highlights of the measure, which would legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana. I-502 does not affect the federal marijuana ban and could be pre-empted by federal law.
Possession: Strips state criminal penalties for small possession (1 ounce dried form, 72 ounces liquid, 1 pound solid form) for people 21 and older.
Sales: State to issue licenses for cannabis retailers, growers and food processors; imposes 25 percent excise tax at each level, funding research, prevention and health care.
Medical marijuana: Does not change state medical-marijuana law; no home grows except for patients.
DUI: Adds new limit for marijuana impairment.
Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times
Kirk Ludden, left, Daniel Stevens and Don Skakie wait for the start of a state Liquor Control Board hearing Thursday about implementing the new marijuana law.
Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times
Dozens waited to testify Thursday before the state Liquor Control Board at Seattle City Hall.