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Originally published June 18, 2013 at 4:40 PM | Page modified June 19, 2013 at 3:42 PM

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Marijuana legalization: What a long, strange trip it has been

The marijuana industry did not turn out as social activists imagined it, writes Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey.

Times editorial columnist

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Muraco Kyashna-Tocha started the Green Buddha marijuana dispensary in an unlabeled Seattle storefront in 2008. In 2009, she applied for a business license. In 2010, she began paying taxes and, in 2012, she passed a tax audit.

She says, “And I expect to shut in April 2014” when the stores for the public are open for business.

Cannabis is a new industry. Change is organic, not predictable and not over.

Green Buddha is a collective, a counterculture of volunteers. The early dispensaries were of that sort; they didn’t have to be efficient and mostly weren’t. The later places were proprietorships, and more businesslike.

“Hippies don’t make good business people,” Kyashna-Tocha says, with a chuckle. The next step, she suggests, will be the Initiative 502 stores sweeping the dispensaries away. Since last November, she says, wholesale prices on Craigslist have dropped 25 percent.

I compare what has happened to a King County Bar Association conference in December 2005 called “Exit Strategy for the War on Drugs.” The talk there was for legal marijuana with no brand names, no promotion and no private sale. Organizer Roger Goodman (now a state representative, D-Kirkland) said he thought it had been a mistake after Prohibition to allow branded alcoholic drinks.

Jeff Haley of the Drug Policy Foundation of Washington suggested that cannabis be sold by state employees. In a show of hands, three-quarters of the attendees supported “profit controls.”

That was the vision, but how to achieve it? Only one state legislator attended the conference, über-liberal Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle.

Things changed. In 2010, a group called Sensible Washington almost collected enough signatures for a statewide initiative to repeal all marijuana laws for those over 18. In California, a legalization measure took 46 percent of the statewide vote. Dispensaries began coming into the open, first in California and then here.

In January 2011, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, introduced a bill to license private growers for the medical market. In February, The Seattle Times came out for adult legalization.

“In the spring of 2011 it was as if a toggle switch had flipped,” says Alison Holcomb of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “The debate had turned from ‘whether’ to ‘when.’ ”

That summer, Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of Kohl-Welles’ bill because of a federal threat to arrest state employees. Reformers took the message: Bypass the Legislature. Use the initiative process, but propose a setup that would be politically defensible.

Under Initiative 502, the state would regulate product quality, labels, signs, store windows and the minimum age of customers. But cannabis would be privately grown and sold. Holcomb led the fight for 502, which was approved in 2012 by 55.7 percent of voters.

The political balance changed. Our Democratic governor and attorney general, who had been against 502 as candidates, began to defend it.

A new industry opens. The old-timers, who think of it as theirs, want to stay in. Says Seattle attorney Hilary Bricken of Harris & Moure, “I hope they have an appetite for regulation.”

Change continues. Will “Big Marijuana” take over? (That may be a problem for the Obama administration.) Will the rule against stores within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, etc., hold? (It’s a problem in Seattle.) Will the DUI limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of whole blood work out? (Colorado has adopted a version of it.) Should Washington promote marijuana tourism?

Colorado is. Bricken noted that Denver is making much of its moniker, “The Mile High City.”

Hey. We’re the Evergreen State.

“These names,” she said. “It’s like somebody knew.”

But they didn’t. Nobody knew.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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