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Originally published March 14, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified March 14, 2013 at 8:08 PM

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Liquor Board gets up to speed about marijuana

Sharon Foster, a former lobbyist, chairs the state agency charged with implementing Washington’s new legal pot law. She and fellow board members Ruthann Kurose and Chris Marr will decide how much weed should be grown, and how to keep it from the black market.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sharon Foster is the public face of legal marijuana in Washington state.

Foster, a retired lobbyist, chairs the state Liquor Control Board, the agency charged with creating a new legal pot system. And decisions about how much weed should be grown, who should grow it, and how to keep it from the black market fall to her and board members Ruthann Kurose and Chris Marr.

The trio, appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, just completed a series of statewide public forums to hear from activists, advocates and opponents.

Foster has toured grow operations, visited medical dispensaries and had a guy at the Mount Vernon forum try to give her a bundle of pot, which she refused.

Foster says she’s enjoyed every minute of the job. “Everybody kind of loves us now. But we’re going to have to write rules,” she said. And those rules will exclude some eager to be licensed growers, processors and retailers.

She and her husband, Dean Foster, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Booth Gardner, have been around Olympia politics for decades. After 20 years as a lobbyist, including for abortion rights and children’s issues, Foster said Gregoire called her out of the blue in 2009.

“I said, ‘You need me to do what?’ ” Foster recalled.

Since then, voters have put the liquor board on a roller coaster. They forced the state two years ago to privatize its liquor stores. Then last year they legalized recreational pot, shifting the agency’s focus.

Board members are paid for working 24 hours a week. Foster’s pay last year was $57,684. Kurose and Marr made $50,052. Foster said she’s been averaging about 40 hours a week.

Foster, 72, seems to accept the duty with good humor, and says she’s grown more liberal with age.

She was asked if she had discussed the new law with Jenny Durkan, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, who could try to shut down the state system at any minute.

“I did,” Foster replied with a smile. “Jenny told me she has a special pair of handcuffs for me.”

When asked if she had tried marijuana, she admitted she had, in an edible form.

“It made me feel pleasant and giggly,” she said. She declined to be more specific about her experience.

Foster is serious about the board’s overarching priorities of protecting public safety and maximizing revenues for the state. “She’s applied herself. She’s taken to the process of educating herself,” Marr said.

Kurose, 61, who grew up in Seattle and now lives on Mercer Island, is also steeped in politics and civic affairs. A Seattle middle school is named after her mother, Aki Kurose, a teacher and peace activist. Ruthann Kurose worked in Washington, D.C., for former U.S. Rep. Mike Lowry. She has served as chair of the Bellevue College Board of Trustees.

Marr, 58, is a former state senator from Spokane. He has worked in management at McDonald’s and owned an auto dealership.

Growing up near San Francisco in the 1960s, there were brushes with counterculture. But whether he ever used pot, Marr said, is less relevant for this job than “knowing how a marketplace works, how a business-distribution channel is set up.”

Pot advocates have been impressed by the board. “They’re really pouring a lot of time and energy into learning and getting up on every aspect of creating a marijuana market,” said Alison Holcomb, author of the state’s new law.

Foster’s experience in politics should help the board, Holcomb said, “negotiate tense situations where you have conflicting interests.”

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

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