Hundreds turn out to weigh in on pot rules

Bremerton residents Tim and Karen Elton were among hundreds of people to attend a Liquor Control Board hearing on marijuana regulation at the Kitsap Conference Center last week. - Kevan Moore
Bremerton residents Tim and Karen Elton were among hundreds of people to attend a Liquor Control Board hearing on marijuana regulation at the Kitsap Conference Center last week.
— image credit: Kevan Moore

Several hundred people poured into the Kitsap Conference last Thursday for a Liquor Control Board hearing on licensing and regulating marijuana production, distribution and possession.

The Bremerton forum was the eighth and final public hearing hosted by the board. As of Dec. 6 of last year, it is no longer illegal under Washington state law for adults 21 and over to possess an ounce of marijuana. The board has been working since voters approved I-502 by 56 percent in November to come up with a three-tier system, similar to the one used for alcohol, to tax and regulate growers, sellers and buyers in a “green market” that could bring billions of dollars to state coffers.

Pat Kohler, the liquor board’s executive director, drew comparisons between getting the state out of the liquor sales business when privatization “shut down a billion dollar business in six months” and navigating the uncharted territory of getting into the business of licensing and regulating marijuana in one year’s time.

“This law actually gives us a little bit of room but is challenging and hasn’t been done anywhere in the world,” Kohler said.

In a brief presentation prior to comments from the public, Kohler said the board will begin accepting license applications from growers in June. Those licenses will be awarded about a month later. Then, in September, the state will begin accepting processor and retailer applications. The retail licenses take effect Dec. 1 when the state’s Green Market goes live.

Liquor Control Board Chair Sharon Foster reminded those in attendance that the board cannot change the new law, though, including what have emerged as an unpopular five nanogram marijuana blood limit that could result in a DUI or a 25 percent tax at every level of sale. But that didn’t keep folks that attended the forum from speaking out on those topics.

Bremerton residents Karen and Tim Elton did not testify, but instead wore bright red T-shirts that said, “Marijuana is safer than alcohol,” to weigh in on the differences between cannabis and other drugs like alcohol. Some spoke out against the stiff taxes. Others were greatly concerned about limiting pesticides and other “adulterants.”

Only one person spoke out against marijuana itself. Karen Hyde told the board that she works in drug prevention and said marijuana is addictive, has negative impacts on brain development and presents “one more challenge (that youngsters) don’t need in this day and age.”

Kingston resident Christy Stanley countered by saying that she hopes legal marijuana will generate enough revenue for youth prevention and education. She also said that she is “willing to step up” and play a role in the new marketplace. Her biggest concerns are that big agricultural and pharmaceutical companies will lobby hard to take over the industry.

Bainbridge Island resident Mary Clare Kersten sounded a similar refrain.

“I feel strongly that when it comes to the small growers and the producers licenses that are given out that there should be an unlimited number of licenses that are given out to people and the price should be reasonable,” she said.

Kersten said that small growers, whether mountaintop recluses or stay-at-home moms and dads, have already become a big part of the local economy and they should be encouraged to continue under new legal rules. She said prohibitive licensing, “will only continue the black market so many of us have worked to end and bring this out and to make cannabis available to everyone legally. I don’t want the black market undermining the legal market we have created.”

Key Peninsula resident David Mikelson told the board that he and many of his neighbors have been supplementing their incomes by growing high-grade smokeable marijuana for years. In his case, Mikelson said he has been in the marijuana business for 47 years and his experience could be of great use to the state.

Mikelson urged the board to limit the amount of plants each license permits to 100 and he called for a centrally located distribution center where marijuana can be tested, weighed and priced uniformly.

“Growers believe $150 per ounce, after taxes, is the minimum needed to be profitable,” he said.

Bremerton resident Charles Stice spoke about the uncertainty surrounding I-502 at the federal level.

“Let us now direct our attention to our federal government and say this is a religious right,” he said

In making his case, Stice also quoted scripture, specifically Genesis 2:16, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou may freely eat.”

Stice said the federal government’s prohibition of marijuana amounts to a police state.

The meeting was also not without a bit of theater.

Gary Ruehle, the evening’s first speaker, thanked the board for a chance to share his “years of high seas smuggling and cannabis use with you.”

“The average person that is a non-cannabis user believes that a few smokes of cannabis is the same as being drunk with alcohol or worse,” he said, suggesting that the state create a cannabis control board that is totally separate from alcohol regulation.

After concluding his remarks, Ruehle turned away from the board and toward the audience. After fumbling with a lighter, he lit what appeared to be a joint and blew out a small puff of faint white smoke.


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