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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 Amends Pot Regulations To Appease Feds

If someone sells drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, they can receive a stiffer sentence under federal law. In developing rules for legal marijuana, Washington state regulators tried to depart slightly from that federal rule. They allowed stores to count the 1,000 feet along sidewalks or roads, rather than “as the crow flies.”

The change would have created more legal locations for pot stores.  But now the state is backtracking.Rick Garza is the director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. He said federal prosecutors in the US attorneys offices for Eastern and Western Washington made clear they will still enforce their definition of the 1,000-foot rule. If the state's rule differs, that could get licensed retail stores in trouble.

“They just simply made it clear that the measure that we’re using is not a measurement that they’re using, and they will enforce their measurement,” Garza said.

As a result, his agency is issuing an emergency rule to bring its regulations back in line with the federal definition. The emergency rule will take effect when all the other marijuana regulations are finalized. That keeps Washington on track to open its first marijuana retail stores next summer.

Washington regulators departed from federal law in the first place to address concerns that there wouldn't be enough legal sites available for marijuana stores. Critics said depending on the number of schools and childcare centers in a community, some cities might not have any legal sites available.

The Drug Enforcement Administration took action earlier this yearagainst medical marijuana dispensaries that it said were violating the rule, sending letters to operators and landlords.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "In those areas where we're allowed to open, we’ll show that the sky doesn't fall, that there are not community problems.", "style": "inset"}]]But Garza said the state isn't planning to allow as many retail stores as some people may have hoped -- or feared. The state expects to license 334 stores overall. In Seattle, for example, the 21 planned retail stores are just a fraction of the 240 medical marijuana dispensaries Garza estimated are currently operating, most in accordance with the 1,000-foot rule. So he said store owners may not need to scramble for additional real estate after all. 

Aspiring marijuana retailer John Davis also heads the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics. He said marijuana retailers should have enough available storefronts, despite the tightening of regulations. And Davis said they are determined to make the state’s new market work.

“In those areas where we’re allowed to open, we’ll show that the sky doesn’t fall, that there are not community problems, that it’s not associated with an increase in youth use or youth availability, and it’ll be a first baby step,” said Davis.

Davis said  he’s encouraged that federal officials have reviewed Washington’s regulatory scheme and signed off on most of it. In August, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Colorado and Washington would be allowed to pursue regulation of legal marijuana, as long as certain federal priorities were met.

Washington expects to finalize its rules and start accepting applications for licenses in November.

Year started with KUOW: 2005