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Originally published October 25, 2014 at 4:03 PM | Page modified October 26, 2014 at 5:21 PM

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Editorial: Where’s the weed? In Seattle, it’s in medical-marijuana dispensaries

Washington’s lax medical marijuana laws are making a mockery of the state’s legalization experiment.

Seattle Times Editorial


FOUR months into Washington’s era of legal marijuana stores, a strange reality has settled over Seattle: The city doesn’t seem to care much about the availability of over-the-counter pot.

Combined sales at Seattle’s recreational marijuana stores trail those in Vancouver, Spokane and even Bellingham. On a per capita basis, Seattle’s sales are about half of Yakima’s and one-third of Tacoma’s, according to data from the state Liquor Control Board.

That’s partly due to the glitchy launch of the recreational market created by Initiative 502. Supply problems have led to sky-high prices and late-opening stores.

But the regional sales disparity defies logical and market forces. Does Spokane really have a closet habit nine times stronger than Seattle’s?

No. In reality, Seattle marijuana users shun recreational stores because they’re getting the cannabis from a larger, cheaper and unregulated source: medical-marijuana dispensaries.

As Seattle’s former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkanwarned last month, medical marijuana is “not a loophole. It is the market.”

She’s right. For that, blame the state Legislature.

How big the medical market is remains a mystery. Regulation of medical marijuana is so lax no one can measure it. No one knows how many dispensaries operate or how many customers there are, let alone how sick those patients really are. Yet, storefront green crosses are as ubiquitous as Starbucks.

Buyers pay no excise taxes on medical marijuana, so cannabis prices are lower than at recreational stores. “Green cards” needed to gain entry to dispensaries continue to be glibly handed out for as little as $50.

This makes a mockery of the state’s landmark new approach to marijuana. Instead of sticking to the strict regime of I-502 — regulating and taxing marijuana, limiting sales to adults and investing in prevention — inaction has allowed the shadow medical market to thrive.

The Seattle City Council put a moratorium on new medical-marijuana businesses, effective November 2013. New storefronts had to become recreational shops, or comply with new regulations expected from the Legislature in 2014.

But the Legislature failed — a good bipartisan proposal was tripped up over minor tax squabbling. The cost of that failure is mounting.

When lawmakers reconvene in January, that legislation should be a priority — and not just for the tax revenue it would churn. The goal must be to serve legitimate patients, limit youth access and build a prevention campaign similar to one that bent down rates of teen tobacco use.

Meantime, Seattle, which has been allergic to policing even the bad actors in medical marijuana, recently sent letters to 331 cannabis-related businesses, reminding those that opened after November that they were “in violation of city law.” City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office has sued five medical-marijuana businesses for failing to follow basic zoning and building codes.

The world is watching Washington’s grand experiment with legalization. In the state’s biggest city, the experiment is being run over by the ubiquitous green crosses.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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