A thriving network of unlicensed marijuana-delivery services makes a mockery of Initiative 502’s important goal of ending the black market.

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WASHINGTON’S landmark effort to legalize and tax marijuana, now three years old, is finally gaining steady footing. Without federal interference, 197 retail marijuana stores are operating statewide, and state regulators are running checks for underage sales. Finally, the unregulated medical-marijuana market is being folded into the licensed, regulated system.

But the goal of crushing the illicit market — the one that readily sells to kids — is still a pipe dream. In fact, the black market is open and thriving in Seattle, in the form of marijuana-delivery services.

The City of Seattle estimates there are about 30 such businesses, with some delivery services keeping 20 drivers on the road. Dial up one of these delivery services and an untaxed ounce of pot can be at your door within an hour.

Delivery services are not legal under any reading of state law. Initiative 502, the 2012 voter-approved measure authorizing the legal-marijuana experiment, doesn’t authorize them. Neither do Seattle’s own regulations. They are drug dealers with cellphones.

That’s not particularly new. Pot-dealing is one of Seattle’s oldest professions. But the brazenness of the illegal trade is jarringly at odds with the huge effort to bring marijuana out of the black market.

The regulators — at the city and at the state Liquor and Cannabis Board — have mostly been laissez-faire about the illegal marijuana market. The state doesn’t view policing delivery services as its role. Seattle police feel whipsawed by changing societal norms and backed off.

No matter how much we do enforcement against a single business, it’s easy for another one to pop up. Unless these websites stop listing them, it’ll be a never-ending battle.” - David Mendoza

The city might finally have taken the problem seriously. David Mendoza, senior policy adviser in the mayor’s Office of Policy and Innovation, said the city is planning to crack down on delivery services soon, following an enforcement model that closed at least 60 unlicensed medical-marijuana dispensaries last year.

But Mendoza said the enforcement task is made more difficult by ubiquitous advertising for illegal delivery services in print and online publications. “No matter how much we do enforcement against a single business, it’s easy for another one to pop up. Unless these websites stop listing them, it’ll be a never-ending battle.”

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess recently took a public jab at a Seattle weekly newspaper, The Stranger, for accepting ads from the illegal delivery services. Tim Keck, the publisher of The Stranger, responded: “Tim, I will happily say ‘no’ to any advertiser as long as you’re willing to pick up the slack.”

Marijuana-focused websites, such as Leafly.com, list illegal delivery services side-by-side with legal, licensed retail shops. A spokesman for Leafly’s parent company did not respond to an email.

The boom in open-delivery services puts the recreational market — which helps pay for health care and drug treatment with a 37 percent excise tax — at a huge disadvantage.

It also makes a mockery of the rational approach to marijuana regulation that voters said “yes” to with Initiative 502. But that experiment is eroded by apathetic enforcement of its rules. In the past six months, Washington marijuana retailers generated $83 million in taxes. But sales have dropped since October.

The proliferation of unlicensed delivery services in the state’s biggest pot market is undoubtedly playing a role. Regulators need to get to work.

Information in this editorial, originally published Jan. 18, 2016, was corrected Jan. 20, 2016. A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated David Mendoza’s title as “head of Seattle’s department of administrative services.” He is the senior policy adviser in the mayor’s Office of Policy and Innovation.

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