Eight years ago, Washington staked a claim as the first state, along with Colorado, to legalize recreational marijuana use. More than a dozen states have since followed suit.
But Washington’s status as a legalization pioneer has lagged in one respect: It remains a felony to grow marijuana for recreational use at home.
A proposal advancing in the state Legislature would change that, allowing adults 21 years and older to grow up to six marijuana plants, with no more than 15 plants allowed in any household.
The measure has been championed by civil liberties and equity activists — and by the legal marijuana industry, which hopes homegrown cannabis could expand consumer interest much like home beer brewing helped spur the microbrewery explosion.
“We do not see it as being competition,” said Lara Kaminsky, government affairs liaison with The Cannabis Alliance, a nonprofit marijuana trade association. “We saw how in the beer industry when people started to brew at home, they became more sophisticated consumers.”
The bill also has been quietly buoyed by a lobbying push from a corporate giant: Scotts Miracle-Gro, known for its ubiquitous green-labeled fertilizers and other lawn and garden products lining Home Depot aisles.
Opponents cite risks
Opponents include substance-abuse-prevention and law-enforcement groups. They worry HB 1019 could expand youth access to the drug and cause nuisances for neighborhoods hit by the skunky, wafting odor of the plants.
“I don’t think this is good public policy,” said Priscilla Lisicich, executive director of Safe Streets, a Tacoma-based public safety nonprofit. She said there is a risk that some homegrown marijuana could fuel black-market drug sales and further normalize use among adolescents.
Lisicich and other critics also pointed out the Legislature has repeatedly shortchanged funding for prevention and education programs that was promised as part of marijuana legalization.
At a public hearing on the bill, James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, cautioned enforcement would be “fairly rare” because most violations of the home-grow bill’s limits would only be apparent if police were able to enter homes.
But supporters argue those objections are overblown and that Washington should follow other states in winding down the war on drugs, particularly with marijuana, citing disproportionate drug arrests and enforcement against people of color.
Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, the prime sponsor of HB 1019, calls herself an “accidental tourist” when it comes to cannabis policy.
As former state PTA legislative director, Kloba takes seriously the goal of minimizing risks for children. But she said allowing home growing is a logical next step for Washington.
More than a dozen other states have legalized recreational marijuana since 2012, when Washington’s landmark Initiative 502 was approved by voters. With the exception of Washington and Illinois, all those legal-marijuana states allow people to grow marijuana at home in addition to retail sales.
“As we have seen from their experiences, it really has not been problematic,” said Kloba, who chairs the House Commerce and Gaming Committee, which passed the bill on a 7-2 vote on Jan 26. (Washington already allows limited home growing for authorized medical marijuana patients.)
Stanley Garnett, a former district attorney for Boulder, Colorado, testified at a hearing in Kloba’s committee that he’d opposed marijuana legalization in his state, but had come to believe that — aside from a few missteps — legalized sales and home growing have not caused major problems.
Fertilizer giant gets involved
Garnett’s testimony was part of the lobbying effort by Scotts, the Marysville, Ohio-based lawn and garden company.
The expansion of legal marijuana cultivation in the U.S. has helped bring record-setting profits for Scotts since it bought a Vancouver, Washington, hydroponics company, Sunlight Supply, for $450 million in 2018.
“It falls within the wheelhouse of what Scotts is known for, which is making plants grow, and grow healthy,” said Michael Diamond, Scotts’ West Coast manager of government affairs.
Through a subsidiary, Scotts now sells all the supplies needed for indoor cannabis growing, including lights, ventilation, air filters and hydroponics. That market, plus the coronavirus pandemic stranding people at home, contributed to a record year for the company, which boosted its revenue 31% to $4.13 billion in fiscal year 2020, according to a report by Columbus Business First.
As part of its campaign to allow home growing here, Scotts paid $30,000 for an economic-impact study by Washington State University’s IMPACT Center, which found legal cannabis sales contributed $1.85 billion to the state’s economy and supported 18,700 jobs in 2020.
Timothy Nadreau, a WSU assistant research professor who conducted the study, testified at the committee hearing on HB 1019 last month, saying he was “an impartial analyst” who was “neutral” on the home-grow bill.
Nadreau’s study showed allowing home grows of marijuana would pose “minimal downside” risk for the retail marijuana industry and associated state tax collections.
Nadreau did not disclose Scotts’ financing role during his legislative testimony but told The Seattle Times in an interview he had “complete autonomy” to design and carry out the research.
He said the study’s financing arrangement was not unusual and that WSU’s IMPACT Center had conducted similar studies for the potato and dairy industries, for example.
Proponents cite issues of equity
For many backers of the bill, civil rights and equity concerns, not profits, are top of mind.
“The war on drugs was a failure, and Washington rejected that nearly 10 years ago,” said Danica Noble, an attorney and organizer with the pro-legalization group NORML Women of Washington, during last month’s hearing. “It was conceived under racist stereotypes. It cost a lot of money, and the burdens of criminal enforcement and marijuana prohibition have been disproportionately born on people of color.”
Overall marijuana arrests have plummeted since the passage of I-502, but studies have shown racial disparities have continued, with Black people far more likely to be arrested than white people.
While similar home-grow bills have fallen short in recent years, Don Skakie, co-founder of the advocacy group Home Grow Washington, says backers have learned from past setbacks and “we do have the best chance of passage that we’ve ever had.”
To mollify some potential concerns, HB 1019 places limits on home grows, including civil infractions if plants are easily visible to the public or “readily smelled” from the street or another housing unit. The bill also bans home grows by family day-care providers and foster homes, and allows landlords to prohibit growing by tenants.
No license would be needed for recreational home grows under the bill, and the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB), which regulates the retail marijuana market, would have no role in enforcement.
Skakie, a retired construction worker who lives in Renton, said he’d like to legally grow marijuana plants if the bill passes. And as a landlord, he says he’d be fine with tenants growing plants outside, too.
But Skakie said plenty of people will learn that growing marijuana is easier said than done. It can be expensive and time consuming, and there is a narrow window to harvest.
“A lot of people are gonna have brown thumbs; they’re gonna find it’s harder than putting a seed into the soil,” Skakie said. “You can’t just pick it off the plant and stick it in the pipe.”