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January 8, 2013 at 4:23 PM

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House Democrats should tread carefully in tinkering with marijuana rules

Three top Democrats in the state House have asked the Washington State Liquor Control Board to slow down the process of creating the voter-approved marijuana market.

The state Liquor Control Board is planning to issue the marijuana grower licenses beginning in mid-May. But Rep. Ross Hunter, chair of the House Appropriations committee, said, "There is no rush."

Hunter, along with Reps. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, and Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, sent a letter to the Liquor Control Board this week intended to slow implementation.

Hunter, D-Medina, said the agency's plans to hire 40 new enforcement staff, as well as a consultant to test the state's taste for marijuana, are concerning. "I voted for it. I don't have a problem with legalizing it. What I have a problem with is the agency hiring a whole bunch of people we don't have the budget for."

Hurst, a former police officer who opposed Initiative 502, said there are "serious problems" with the initiative. Licensing fees for marijuana growers, processors and sellers are set at $1,000, a level he rightly calls "ridiculous" given the money that business stand to make. In Colorado's medical marijuana industry, fees are $18,000 or more.

Hurst instead suggests auctioning off the licenses. "If we're really going to have a free market, we should consider what the market will bear," said Hurst.

But Hurst also wants to fundamentally change the new law, to give municipalities more control and to mandate tougher penalties for licensees who violate rules. He also suggests holding off in fully implementing the law until the Obama Administration indicates how it will respond to Washington's legalized marijuana market.

Squeezing additional revenue from what is predicted to be an instant billion-dollar market is attractive amid a recession, and taking a few weeks to give the Legislature time to consider budget impacts is reasonable.

But the Legislature should be cautious before tinkering with an initiative enthusiastically passed by voters just months ago. And it's unclear if any changes could pass with two-thirds of the Legislature, as required.

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