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August 5, 2013 at 1:49 PM

Top pot consultant to Seattle: boost enforcement, be wary of empty warehouses

The state’s top pot consultant offered two main bits of advice to the Seattle City Council, which is poised to create regulations for legal pot businesses that may allow 50,000-square-foot growing operations in the city’s industrial areas.

Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor and head of BOTEC Analysis, told council members today that increased law enforcement against illegal dealers could be helpful to the state’s new legal recreational system — even if that enforcement leads to short-term racial disparities in prosecuting cases.  And, Kleiman said, he’s concerned the city’s zoning plan for legal pot could leave empty buildings in manufacturing areas because it’s unlikely Seattle would ever become a long-term growing haven.

“I’d be a little worried about developing white elephants,” Kleiman said about the city’s zoning proposal. “You may wind up with buildings people don’t use.”

Trailed by a New Yorker writer, Kleiman told the council he doubted that Seattle would ever become a center for agriculture of any kind. Land costs in the city are high, he noted, and abundant land in eastern Washington is well-suited for sun-grown pot, which could be produced at presumably cheaper prices than indoor pot in Seattle. Kleiman suggested that “cannabis gold rush” entrepreneurs, able to pay higher rents, could displace manufacturers in the city, only to find years from now that pot is legalized nationally and all grown in Iowa.

Kleiman spoke more, though, about reasons for the city and state to step up law enforcement against illegal dealers in order to gain market share and tax revenues for the legal system.

Now, if an illegal dealer is arrested “you just create a niche for another dealer,” he said. But under the state’s legal system the hope is that busting dealers would lead their customers to migrate to the legal system.

“But I don’t see any planning in law enforcement to take advantage of that opportunity,” he said.

Though none of the tax revenues from legal pot would go to law enforcement under Washington’s voter-approved law, Kleiman said it might be something for state lawmakers to consider changing.

Noting the history of racial disparities in marijuana enforcement, Councilmember Mike O’Brien said he’d be concerned that ramped up enforcement would “compound the problem.”

Kleiman said that’s certainly possible because poorer people and racial minorities might be more likely to use street corners for illegal pot commerce, and be subject to enforcement, than affluent white people.

“I think it’s worth taking the transition cost,” Kleiman said, in order to undercut the illicit market.

But in Seattle, where police are reluctant to even ticket people for smoking pot in public, increased enforcement seems a long shot.

“It’s unnecessary as well,” said Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director for the ACLU of Washington state.

The primary author of the state’s legal pot law, Holcomb said there’s been plenty of law enforcement against marijuana – but the vast majority has been for possession not growing or selling.

Now that possessing one ounce is legal for adults, those same resources could be redirected to cracking down on illegal distributors, she said. That would not be antithetical to the spirit of Initiative 502, she said.

What’s more, she said policy makers should wait and see how many consumers migrate to the legal system from both illegal and medical marijuana markets before making any rash decisions.

She pointed to alcohol prohibition as a lesson. “The battle of the bootleggers was not won by enforcement but by the fact people wanted to buy legal booze,” she said.

Comments | Topics: marijuana, Seattle City Council


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