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Washington became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But there are a lot of challenges ahead: the state must set up a licensing system for marijuana growers and sellers, the federal government may mount a challenge, the need to set a new limit on amount of marijuana in the bloodstream for safe driving. And medical marijuana is still in the picture.Over the next several months we will be exploring the issue and tracking the impact of I-502.

Could 23rd & Union Become Pot Central?

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One of the few places in the heart of Seattle that could legally host a pot retail center is 23rd Avenue and Union Street, in the Central District.

Beginning next year, as many as 21 marijuana retail stores could be open for business in Seattle — and that's sparked a contentious debate over where these stores can be located.

State rules mandate that retail stores must be 1,000 feet from schools, public parks, libraries and even transit centers. That leaves very few places for pot stores to open. According to the city's preliminary map, in nearly all of central Seattle (including Capitol Hill, First Hill and the Central Area), there are very few places that pot retailers will be able to open up. One of those places is the corner of 23rd Avenue and E Union Street.

As of now, state rules and city zoning plans would make it perfectly legal for several pot stores to open up on the same block. And that has some community members concerned. They’re worried that a cluster of pot stores could bring crime to the area. They're also concerned about kids having easier access to marijuana and how legalization will change the perception of pot.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Research indicates that when perception of harm decreases, actual use increases.", "style": "inset"}]]Randy Beaulieu is coordinator for the Central Seattle Drug Free Communities Coalition. He works with students at Garfield High School, Washington Middle School and Madrona K-8. He says he's spotted a trend over the past five years: students are viewing marijuana as less and less harmful. "The perception of harm is decreasing. And research indicates that when perception of harm decreases, actual use increases," Beaulieu said.

But the prospect of legal pot stores have others excited about the economic opportunities.Ian Eisenberg is a real estate investor and business owner in Seattle. He owns several parcels of land near that corner.

"It would bring new people to the neighborhood who are scared of the area from the past perceptions of crime," Eisenberg said. He points out that if people come to the area to buy pot, they'll check out other businesses, too.

"You go to one shop, then you try out another shop next door. That's the whole idea of a shopping mall, or a strip mall. If we can find a way to pull new customers into 23rd and Union to try out businesses in the new developments — restaurants and bars — it'll be great," said Eisenberg.

Despite the economic potential, concerns remain about this particular corner of the Central Area becoming a haven for marijuana retailers. Larry Evans is legislative aide to King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, whose district includes the Central Area and Capitol Hill. Evans said clustering marijuana stores would be bad for the community.

You can look in disenfranchised communities along Rainer Avenue, Martin Luther King Avenue, White Center, or Aurora Avenue North, and you'll see payday loan stores, liquor stores, tobacco shops. What we don't want to see is a congregation of marijuana retail shops. It sends a message to the community at large; especially the young people.

Washington state will finalize its rules for legal marijuana by December 1. The city of Seattle will finalize it's zoning rules in early October.

Year started with KUOW: 2006