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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.

Washington Officials Seek Public Input On Marijuana

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The Washington State Liquor Control Board is kicking off a series of six public hearings around the state. The board wants public input on how to create a legal, taxed distribution system for marijuana. Budding members of the new marijuana economy say they’ll be in attendance.

Under Initiative 502, the Washington state Liquor Control Board must create a state-licensed system to sell legal marijuana. The number of available licenses is still in flux. A study by the state’s Office of Financial Management uses 100 growers’ licenses and 328 retail licenses as a starting point. The second number was chosen because Washington had 328 state-licensed liquor stores before that business was deregulated.

Seattle lawyer Hilary Bricken runs the Cannabis Business Group, which lobbies on behalf of marijuana producers. Bricken expects members of the public to have concerns about lots of new marijuana stores popping up. And she said that could affect how many retail licenses the board grants.  “The reason why I think retail is going to be limited is because of the social stigma surrounding retailing. Nothing else," she said. "But even that number could increase if they find out in Spokane over 50 percent of the population really wants their cannabis.”

Initiative 502 passed with 52 percent of the vote in Spokane County. But the city has little of Seattle’s flourishing medical marijuana scene. In Spokane, law enforcement closed down all the dispensaries in 2011. But with the local support for I-502, some marijuana distributors have felt emboldened to set up shop again. One of them is Sean Green, who said, “I intend to follow the letter of the law and be a picture of compliance.”

Green is the managing member of Pacific Northwest Medical, which just opened a medical marijuana “access point” in Spokane this month. Green met with city officials and feels confident that if he follows state law he’ll be allowed to stay open. Green hopes to get a retail license from the state once they’re available. “I’ve secured the real estate," he said. "That’s one of the most difficult aspects of it. So from there, it’s a matter of monitoring this rulemaking process, finding out what we can and can’t do, and adjusting from there.”

Green plans to attend the upcoming public hearing in Olympia. He’s moving ahead on the assumption that the state will implement I-502. But marijuana remains illegal under federal law. It’s unclear whether federal officials will move to block the new state system or prosecute those involved.

Bricken said amidst the uncertainty, she advises her clients to follow state laws and not to do anything flashy. “You cannot make too much money. You cannot be too high-profile -- which is very limiting to big capital and big investment. However," she said, "the consequence is: The federal government makes an example out of you."

The Liquor Control Board is in the process of hiring a consultant to help it better estimate demand for recreational marijuana. A key concern is preventing over-supply that could enter the black market across state lines.

Year started with KUOW: 2005