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Originally published Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 9:37 PM

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Supporters, critics speak out at Yakima forum on state pot law

State regulators hold one of the last of their pot forums in Yakima, unfriendly territory compared with Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and other forum sites. Yakima County voted against Initiative 502, which enacted the state’s new legal pot law.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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YAKIMA — Yakima County overwhelming opposed Initiative 502, which enacted the state’s new legal pot law, and a Thursday public forum here to discuss implementation had a less friendly flavor than similar marijuana forums held on the west side of the Cascades.

Nonetheless, pot enthusiasts filled a good bit of a 780-seat room at the Yakima Convention Center, eager to share their views with the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the agency charged with implementing the new law. Many in the crowd applauded when Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the board, said, “We are the first in the world to take it from seed to retail.”

In their testimony, advocates extolled the medical benefits of pot, called for a system that allows many small producers and touted the future of ganja-tourism.

Others offered a different perspective. “I’m here to bring the rural voice to the table,” said Andi Ervin of Omak, a certified substance-abuse-prevention professional. “I don’t want our alfalfa farms to turn into marijuana farms.”

Corina Radford, a member of the Omak Planning Commission, is concerned that land-rich Eastern Washington runs the risk of becoming a pot hothouse for the state. “Therefore we’ll have a higher risk of access and leakage back to the black market,” Radford said.

As a mother of four, Ervin said her chief concern is the “normalization that’s been occurring since medical marijuana came into effect.” She worries that youth use will increase and the health, safety and academic achievement of kids will suffer.

John Dennis, a medical-marijuana patient from Prosser, disagreed. “Aren’t these the same arguments raised after Prohibition when liquor became legal again? I think we can do this responsibly, intelligently,” he said.

Yakima marked the seventh of eight statewide liquor-board forums. The last is March 7 at the Kitsap Conference Center in Bremerton.

From here, the board’s work will intensify. It may announce next week the consultants it intends to hire for expertise on key issues such as consumption rates and product quality.

Meanwhile, state officials have been researching issues such as security, testing and traceability.

In April, the board will seek public comment on its draft language for rules implementing I-502. From there, it’s a steady march through more rule-making and feedback.

The board hopes to issue retailer licenses by Dec. 1. Some time after that, adults 21 and over will be able to walk into a state-licensed store to buy up to an ounce of heavily taxed weed.

Peggy Gutierrez, a drug-free coordinator from Columbia County, was one of several speakers at the Yakima forum who expressed concerns about children.

“This is my challenge to everybody in this room and involved in this process: Be responsible as a grower, producer and business person,” she said. “Come on board and let’s all work together to protect the youth in our community.”

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

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