Much has changed in the 10 years since Washington voters approved Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana. More than a dozen states have followed suit, and while for some the rosiest tax revenue projections failed to materialize, none have seen the dire consequences opponents envisioned.
What hasn’t changed, even as the marketplace continues to evolve and mature, is the state’s enforcement arm, the Liquor and Cannabis Board. In 2019, the Legislature effectively worked to move the LCB away from a culture of punitive enforcement to that of a business regulatory agency, while keeping a strong focus on public safety.
Lawmakers should stay the course and continue modernizing the board to improve compliance from cannabis licensees and better prepare the state for what the next decade may bring.
A bipartisan bill that would have brought the makeup of the LCB in line with the Washington State Gambling Commission — adding two voting members as well as four nonvoting ex officio members from the Legislature — failed to advance this session.
Though that proposal was unsuccessful, legislators should consider the issue and refer it for study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee or the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. A report from either of these study groups would provide an analysis of what seems like an obvious need for the board to change with the times.
Appointed by the governor, the three-member LCB — which has remained virtually unchanged since the end of prohibition — oversees a cannabis industry that in 2020 generated $660.8 million in state and local taxes. Marijuana operations in the state, from growers to retailers, directly employed more than 11,000 people and generated about $1.4 billion in business revenues, according to a report by the Washington CannaBusiness Association.
That’s a lot of power wielded by three people.
The growing industry, and the complex regulatory framework around it, would benefit from having more points of view represented on the board, as well as from lawmakers having closer contact with regulators to preserve legislative intent.
The Legislature’s recent efforts directed the board to concentrate on compliance and education after consistent complaints that harsh enforcement efforts were stifling the legal industry. An independent review commissioned by the LCB in 2019 found a need for a cultural change within the agency, as well as increased transparency and communication with stakeholders.
LCB officials have pointed out that since 2019, violation notices have decreased and educational visits to cannabis licensees have more than doubled, but some in the industry say the board continues to drag its feet on reform and administrative infractions that have nothing to do with public safety still result in heavy-handed enforcement.
The landscape around legal cannabis remains in flux, from regulating products derived from hemp to improving racial equity to the possibility of federal legalization. Lawmakers can help ensure that state regulators are able to respond quickly to change, support a burgeoning local industry and protect public safety.