If It Ain't Broke
Olympia Considers Fixes to Legalization Rules
Overriding an initiative within months of voters passing it may seem drastic, but that's what state lawmakers are considering right now. Four ranking members of the Washington State Legislature have been scrutinizing Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana last fall. Among their potential revisions, they say the state could raise license fees by thousands of dollars for growers, cities could use more authority to ban pot stores, authorities could postpone the measure to stave off a potential federal intervention, and users could carry a tax stamp to prove their pot was purchased legally.
Olympia has shown little compunction in dismissing the will of voters in the past—in 2009, the legislature swiftly suspended an entire initiative dealing with home health-care workers. But tweaking voter-approved rules within two years of passage does require overcoming an obstacle: reaching a two-thirds majority vote of lawmakers.
Representative Christopher Hurst (D-Enumclaw), who chairs the state house Government Accountability & Oversight Committee, says amending I-502 would essentially require "unanimous agreement" from the legislature and governor. He was the chief signatory on a letter last month to the liquor control board, which is overseeing I-502's implementation, raising seven issues and asking questions about what lawmakers might change before the new pot rules take effect.
"People will say you are trying to slow this down, or stop it, but we are trying to fulfill the wishes of the initiative," says Hurst, who says he intends to create a well-regulated legal market that undercuts illegal sales and keeps the Feds out of Washington.
Not surprisingly, Alison Holcomb, who wrote the initiative, thinks changing it now is premature. She fired back her own letter to state officials this month, stripping down lawmakers point by point.
Among them: Cities will retain their zoning authority to site businesses, she points out, and the longer we delay the initiative, "the richer criminal enterprises get" without settling questions about federal intervention. Most pointedly, though, Holcomb criticizes increasing license fees. Higher costs could favor large producers, much like "Big Tobacco," and drive small pot producers out of the market. "We do not want to start our experiment with a legal marijuana market by funneling licenses to a new Big Marijuana with big upfront investment requirements," Holcomb writes.
Amending I-502 would also require backing from Governor Jay Inslee, Hurst says. "The governor has not ruled out some of these changes if they are deemed necessary," says Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith. "But he is very committed to implementing this as closely to what the voters approved as possible."
But, as Hurst himself points out, Holcomb "did a really great job" drafting the initiative. And if that's the case—that she understands the law so well—the legislature and Inslee should trust her call that if I-502 needs adjustments, those tweaks can come after it's been in effect for a full year.