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Originally published February 7, 2013 at 7:26 PM | Page modified February 7, 2013 at 7:26 PM

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Two letters expose rift over new pot law

Dueling letters highlight the acrimony and politics brewing as Washington begins to write its laws controlling legal marijuana.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Debate, acrimony and recriminations — in other words, politics — around the state’s new legal marijuana law have intensified in the state Capitol.

Led by Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, a handful of legislators recently drew up a letter raising questions and concerns about the law, including whether it can be implemented by December as required under voter-approved Initiative 502.

On Thursday, one of the law’s sponsors defended it in a point-by-point response to Hurst’s letter.

Alison Holcomb, drug-policy director for the ACLU of Washington, said several times in her rebuttal that the new law should be allowed a real-world test in 2014, its first full year of implementation, before state officials change it.

Holcomb also implied that some of Hurst’s concerns could lead to a “Big Marijuana” industry whose advertising targets young people.

Holcomb’s letter was not well-received by Hurst, who chairs the House committee overseeing the new law.

He called it nasty, cynical and an attempt to crush free speech.

“She needs to step back and calm down,” Hurst said, adding that he likes Holcomb, thinks she did a good job drafting the law and should be applauded for wanting a tightly regulated seed-to-store, state-licensed system.

The dueling letters seem to spotlight a potential rift between the law’s staunch advocates and lawmakers who say they want the new system — untested anywhere — to operate as voters intended, with the state getting the taxes it hopes for, and the black market driven to extinction.

“We are in the middle of history,” said Philip Dawdy, spokesman for the Washington Cannabis Association about the dueling letters. “And it’s going to be weird and rocky.”

Hurst’s chief gripes are that Holcomb responded as if he is proposing changes to the law when he’s asking questions, and that she fired off her letter before waiting for the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), the state agency charged with implementing the law, to answer Hurst’s letter. Hurst said Holcomb makes it seem like you’re “engaging in heresy if you ask questions.”

He also was peeved that Holcomb insinuated that he was “selling out to Big Marijuana” when he asked if business license fees should be higher. “We didn’t make any such proposal. She’s ascribing terms to us for just asking questions,” he said.

In response, Holcomb said it was her civic duty to weigh in on ways to implement the law. She wasn’t trying to chill anyone’s free speech, she said, and didn’t think she linked Hurst to Big Marijuana.

State officials estimate that the new industry would generate annual income of $1.6 billion just in the growing, processing and selling of marijuana. The law requires the WSLCB to have regulations in place by Dec. 1.

Also signed by Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee; Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake; and Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, Hurst’s letter raises seven concerns. Holcomb attempts to rebut each in her letter to the liquor-control board.

Among the main points of contention, Hurst asks if the annual $1,000 license fee for producers, processors or retailers is high enough. Hurst notes that Colorado charged $18,000 for medical-marijuana business licenses, and the WSLCB recently auctioned liquor licenses for six figures. He wonders if the board should consider alternatives, including auctions.

Holcomb said large license fees pose a barrier to small businesses entering the market and favor big business. “We do not want to start our experiment with a legal marijuana market by funneling the licenses to a new Big Marijuana with big upfront investment requirements.”

Given that its model is untested, Hurst asked if the state has time enough to address concerns with the federal government, revenue collection and moving an industry that is now largely run by criminals, to a legitimate one that protects public safety.

Delay doesn’t clarify whether the federal government — which considers all marijuana illegal — will try to block Washington’s new law; only moving forward does, Holcomb said. She said she was confident the WSLCB will adopt sufficient rules in time. And, she said, the shift from black market to legal sales will occur much like it did with alcohol prohibition: Legal businesses will cut off revenue from criminals; police will continue to enforce laws against withering black markets.

Saying there’s no incentive for consumers to move from an illegal market to a legal one, Hurst also asked if the state should create an infraction for possessing unregulated, untaxed marijuana.

Holcomb said consumers will be motivated to move away from the black market “because we are, overwhelmingly, law-abiding citizens.” The legal market, she noted, will have other advantages: quality control, assurances that a customer’s money is flowing to a tax-paying legal business, and lower prices — although some may dispute the last point.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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