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Originally published Saturday, December 6, 2014 at 4:04 PM

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Editorial: Unregulated medical-marijuana market is creating a hazy future

Washington state’s leadership on recreational-marijuana legalization is in jeopardy because of the Legislature’s and Seattle’s indolence on needed regulation.

Seattle Times Editorial


THE world is watching Washington’s historic experiment with marijuana legalization, and we’re screwing it up.

A painstakingly slow launch of recreational marijuana stores, with their sky-high prices and scarcity in Seattle, gets most headlines. But the truth is that experiment is utterly undermined by a much larger, wildly unregulated medical-marijuana market.

Medical-marijuana dispensaries appear to outnumber Starbucks stores in Seattle, yet local regulators and law-enforcement agencies are doing almost nothing to police bad actors hiding behind the ubiquitous green crosses.

Last week, in a brief random test, Seattle Times editorial writers visited three medical-marijuana dispensaries to see if they even checked for medical authorization, as required by law.

At two storefronts — which employees identified as Seattle Caregivers in the Chinatown International District and as the 420 Collective on Rainier Avenue South — a writer bought a small amount of marijuana without being asked to show such authorization.

That’s a clear violation even of the state’s muddled medical-marijuana law. Neither store demanded to see the writer’s proof of age, raising the possibility of an underage sale. In fact, neither has so much as a city business license for their address, according to city records, violating one of the few Seattle regulatory laws regarding dispensaries.

The experiment took all of 30 minutes and $20 — enough time to make two quick purchases that are indistinguishable from black-market transactions. That’s also time enough to confirm suspicion that Seattle leaders either don’t seem to give a rip about wink-and-a-nod storefront dispensaries or are apathetic about what to do.

Not all dispensaries are bad actors. One storefront, The Green Door in the International District, turned away The Times writer for failing to have an authorization.

But the failure to distinguish good from bad — to put basic rules on a gray market industry — erodes the cornerstone of Washington’s landmark legalization experiment.

The Legislature’s abysmal failure to integrate medical- and recreational-marijuana markets last session is largely to blame. This year, lawmakers should urgently tackle such regulations early in the session, starting with debate on a smart proposal by Seattle Democrat state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles. And they should wrap up a solution quickly.

Olympia’s past failures on marijuana policy shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction in Seattle, the state’s capital of weed.

The city already has a law that effectively bans “major” medical-marijuana operations from opening after November 2013. Yet, Seattle continues to crank out business licenses for marijuana operations — at least 60 since the supposed ban went into place, according to city staff.

It cashes the checks, and makes the problem worse.

Mayor Ed Murray’s office is preparing a plan to create a regulatory marijuana license, similar to liquor permits. That could be a useful tool. But it is no excuse to ignore existing authority, including criminal charges against black-market dealers masquerading as dispensaries.

The world is watching. The state Legislature and Seattle are screwing this up.

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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