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Recreational marijuana process moving at a snail’s pace

The Liquor Control Board will announce the winners of the state’s initial licences for legal retail marijuana stores early in May. The state anticipates thay the first legal sales won’t take place until July as lottery winners will need time to construct their stores and install the mandated high-end security and tracking systems, pass final inspection and get their products from state-licensed marijuana growers.

And there’s the rub — five weeks after announcing the identity of the state’s first licensed grower on March 5, only nine other producer (or grower) applications have been approved by the state. That’s out of 2,713 active “producer” applications. None of the 10 applicants who have been approved so far are in Grays Harbor, Pacific, Lewis or Thurston counties. The closest is in rural Mason County.

Licensed growers are expected to supply the projected 334 stores statewide, but many of those stores my never open if the state Legislature does not eventually address the number of municipalities statewide — including Hoquiam and Ocean Shores on the Harbor — that have been granted stores by the state but where there are currently moratoriums or outright bans on all legal marijuana operations.

Meanwhile, with the state Legislature unable to come to agreement on what should be done about phasing out the medical marijuana dispensaries that have seemingly cropped up everywhere, those operations and that industry is likely to run side-by-side — and compete for customers — with the fledgling retail industry.

“It doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in the system,” said Chris Thomas, a medical marijuana grower who lives near Rochester and who is pursuing licenses to become a legal grower and processor. “Maybe medical will never go away, but many people are jumping into I-502 because they were under the impression that medical will go away.”

Last week, the state announced that it will use a complicated “double-blind” lottery at the end of this month to determine and award licensees for retail stores. There are 2,169 active retail store applications statewide for the 334 licenses. Twenty-five applicants, including several at Satsop, Porter and the Elma areas, have applied for the six licensed stores that could potentially open in Grays Harbor — one in Aberdeen, one in Hoquiam, one in Ocean Shores and three “at-large” licenses for locations in the county or other cities.

Grays Harbor County may only realize four of those stores as Hoquiam has approved an outright ban on all legal marijuana operations and Ocean Shores currently has a moritorium, but the Ocean Shores City Council is expected to address the issue further in May and could lift it. The Legislature also failed to address those bans before it adjourned last month.

“We will work first with (applicants) in those places that don’t have bans or moratoriums,” said Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith.

Smith also said that stores that have been designated for cities that have approved bans will not be awarded to other cities or put into the county’s “at-large” pool.

“We would still run that lottery for Hoquiam,” where there are five applicants for the one available license. “The winner could potentially go forward and get their state license and then have the option of dropping out if they want or hanging in there,” said Smith, depending on what the Legislature or the city of Hoquiam determine in the future.

Last week, Liquor Control Board Deputy Director Randy Simmons said more than 500 retail-store applicants failed to respond last month to an agency request for five basic pieces of information and have been removed from the list of potential licensees. A similar number of those who responded might be knocked out for not sending all the information requested, he said. That likely will still leave far more applicants in many communities than the board will allow in its first round of licensing.

The Liquor Control Board will notify winners of the license lottery on May 1. The winning applicants will be posted on the agency’s website on May 2, but they must still pass inspections by the state.

The Liquor Control Board has contracted with the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center of Washington State University and the accounting firm for Washington’s Lottery, Kraght-Snell of Seattle, to independently produce rank-ordered lists of applicants in each jurisdiction where a lottery is necessary. Being identified as the apparent successful applicant is not a guarantee that the selected applicant will receive a license. There are multiple requirements for licensure such as the applicant must pass a criminal history and financial investigation as well as have a location that is not within 1,000 feet of a school, park or other area specified by Initiative 502 as places where children congregate.

“We cannot control how fast people get up and running,” Simmons told The Spokesman-Review. “All 334 stores will not open at the same time.”

That seems to be the same case with potential state-licensed growers, with the approval process seemingly moving at a snail’s pace.

Smith, with the Liquor Control Board, says the state is pushing through potential applications at a decent rate, the applicants don’t seem to be ready.

“What we’re seeing is that we’re pusing through three to five (applicants) per day,” said Smith, “and more than half the folks aren’t even ready. Our applicants themselves haven’t gotten up to speed. It’s on them at this point.”