Weed on Whidbey: A comprehensive review

Rhetoric about recreational marijuana flew fast and loose on May 5, 2014, a lively day in the basement of 1 NE 6th Street in Coupeville.

Krissy Hodges

“A burden on law and justice!”

“Fool’s gold!”

Rhetoric about recreational marijuana flew fast and loose on May 5, 2014, a lively day in the basement of 1 NE 6th Street in Coupeville. The Island County Board of Commissioners was scheduled to hear public comment and then vote on ordinance C-40-14, enabling the countywide growth and sale of pot for pleasure.

Island County was late to the pot party. Washington state had authorized the use of recreational marijuana by adults 18 months before, in November 2012, with Initiative 502. A year passed before the county imposed a study-period moratorium on any recreational marijuana-related activities, and six months more before the commissioners were ready to implement I-502.

Just as the commissioners were ready to vote on that day in May, then-commissioner Kelly Emerson did an about-face.

“Law enforcement is very concerned about the impact it’s going to have,” she said. Whidbey is an “isolated geographical area” where problems caused by pot might be exacerbated, she added. “I would move that we disallow the right to this in Island County.”

Commissioner Jill Johnson seconded the motion.

The motion breached parliamentary procedure and reversed Emerson’s earlier stand on the issue. It was shunted aside only by the voice of Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who said she was “aghast” at the breach. Members of the public at the hearing were appalled at the notion of a ban so late in the deliberations.

Johnson asked then-Planning Director Dave Wechner whether the moratorium still in place could be extended. He said it could be.

“I’m sick to my stomach that this decision is being made at this moment,” Jill Johnson exclaimed. “We’re not clear on social costs, and we don’t know how this will play out in the community.”

“We fell in love with a gold rush that has turned out in Colorado to be fool’s gold.”

Price Johnson moved for a vote on the enabling ordinance, expressing her approval of the measure. Jill Johnson restated her strong objections but agreed to vote in its favor, saying that doing otherwise would betray the voters’ wishes.

The measure passed 2-1, with Emerson opposed. She resigned from the board of commissioners shortly thereafter, for unrelated reasons.

Sales to the public elsewhere in the state began July 8, 2014. They didn’t start until Oct. 24, 2014, on Whidbey.

Today, Emerson is gone and Jill Johnson has relaxed her opposition. But it’s still far from clear what effects legalization will have.

It may remain unclear for years.

Legalization promised several benefits, among them increased tax revenue and fewer resources squandered chasing dealers and jailing pot smokers. Opponents feared legalization would result in more DUIs, lead to crimes against growers and retailers and connote societal approval of a substance some consider a gateway to harder drugs.

And, of course, the long-term health effects of marijuana smoking still have not been definitively examined.

How has all that shaken out on Whidbey? In brief, it’s had a positive financial effect on the county. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. Looking more deeply requires data, and so far that’s in short supply, both statewide and in Island County.

That’s not because no one here is using marijuana. Retail sales increased by double-digit percentages nearly every month, twice hitting triple-digit percentage increases.

“I would prefer not to have [marijuana],” Jill Johnson said earlier this month. “But it has not been as visibly harmful as I thought. [Still,] I am very concerned that our youth are indicating a greater propensity to experiment with the drug and do not believe it is harmful.”

She is not alone in her concern.

The money


From a financial point of view, recreational marijuana is proving a success overall, though tax benefits to Island County are disappointing some.

A few dozen people in the county are now earning income from growing, processing or retailing recreational marijuana, according to licenses issued by the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board. And they’re doing well, as future installments of this story will reveal.

Far bigger money is being generated by taxes. In fiscal 2015, which was July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015, $1.4 million worth of recreational marijuana was grown, processed and retailed in Island County, generating excise tax of $340,000, according to LCB figures. That’s 11th from the bottom among the 36 counties reporting.

King County led the list, with sales of $59 million and excise tax of $14.8 million. Asotin County was in last place, with sales of $78,400 and excise tax of $20,000. Several counties still don’t have any recreational marijuana operations.

Statewide marijuana sales of $259.5 million generated $64.9 million in excise tax during fiscal 2015.

The portion of excise tax flowing back to Island County in fiscal 2016 is only $23,750 — less than 7 percent of what it contributed. In addition, Oak Harbor will get $15,833. It’s the only municipality in the county that will get a slice of the excise-tax pie.

Distributions of those amounts are being made on a quarterly basis. They began Sept. 30. The Island County Treasurer’s Office received its quarterly payment in a check for $5,937.34 that month.

The county’s share strikes some as disproportionately small.

“It’s the counties and the local jurisdictions dealing with the permitting and regs, and it’s our law-enforcement officers who make sure no illegal activities happen,” said Elaine Marlow, the county’s budget director. “So it does concern me that the state is taking the lion’s share of the excise taxes.”

Price Johnson has crusaded for a larger share to go to local government, but “the state already made a decision for distributing marijuana revenue … in the last session, [and] I wouldn’t expect any major changes in the near term,” she wrote in an October email.

Under HB 2136, enacted June 30, counties and cities could get a bigger share of marijuana excise taxes starting in fiscal 2018.

The excise-tax money distributed to both counties and municipalities is intended “for public safety purposes and to facilitate the ongoing process of ensuring a safe, regulated marijuana market,” according to HB 2136. The money is to be used for “marijuana enforcement.”

But that language is “not very clear, so the next step for us is to seek clarification from the state,” Marlow said.

HB 2136 doesn’t define “enforcement,” so “there’s a fair amount of flexibility in how the money can be spent,” said Brian Enslow, a senior policy director at the Washington State Association of Counties.

At the same time, he added, “our members wanted to be able to spend it on anything, and that’s not the situation.”

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said he’s disappointed the state hasn’t used the excise-tax bounty to improve drug-abuse programs and increase public awareness of the dangers of drugs.

“The states have shown that public-information campaigns can educate people about smoking cigarettes and wearing seat belts,” Banks said.

“That’s where most of the money should have gone.”

Law enforcement

Top cops all over Whidbey regard recreational marijuana as only a minor threat. Banks, Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, Oak Harbor Police Chief Ed Green and Langley Police Chief David Marks agree that driving under the influence of marijuana is the biggest concern with legalization, followed by the possibility of increased use by those under 21.

“Let’s face it,” said Marks, “marijuana was almost legal before it was legalized. It was such a low law-enforcement priority. There are bigger fish to fry, and there always have been.”

None of the men said he has seen an increase in marijuana-related crime, such as public smoking, possession of unlawful amounts or crimes against marijuana grow sites or retailers. None said that, with the arrest rate for marijuana use down — resulting in fewer people being jailed and prosecuted — personnel are being laid off or freed up for other purposes.

None of the men said there is any evidence of confusion about the rules governing marijuana growth and its use.

Brown said he worries about marijuana treated with heroin or methamphetamine, though he couldn’t say how widespread that problem is in Island County. Green has observed “a small uptick in marijuana-related DUIs,” he said. But “people are beginning to understand that marijuana use produces impairment when driving,” he said.

None of the officers had statistics on marijuana-related offenses or was aware of any county effort under way to gather them.

The state’s Traffic Safety Commission, in October, issued a highly detailed report that, though too cautious to draw its own conclusions, cited two 2012 meta-analyses concluding that increases in crash risk followed a driver’s use of marijuana.

Seven studies concluded that drivers testing positive for marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, were more than twice as likely to crash as THC-free drivers, the report noted.

“I bet our marijuana stores don’t even have a poster saying people shouldn’t smoke and drive,” Banks said.

Health perceptions

Some data suggests a link between legalization and Island County youths’ perceptions about marijuana use, said Laura Luginbill, the county’s assessment and healthy communities director. But no data indicates an increase in Island County marijuana use by those under 21.

Talk about legalizing pot began well before the July 8, 2014 legalization date, of course. I-502 was approved in 2012, and debate no doubt stretched back farther than that. Kids may well have heard the talk, just as adults did.

Marijuana use hovered at 1-2 percent for Island County sixth-graders in 2004-2014 and at 14-19 percent among tenth-graders during that period, according to a Healthy Youth survey taken by the state’s health department in October 2014 and released in the spring of 2015.

But the percentage of county sixth-graders saying they saw no or low risk from trying or regularly using marijuana increased significantly between 2010 and 2014, to 51 percent from 42 percent. The percentage of 10th-graders with that perception grew to 96 percent, from 76 percent, during the same period.

“It’s not justified to infer causation, but there is a correlation between legalization and the perception that marijuana use poses little or no risk,” Luginbill said.

The next survey is due out in the spring 2017.

Youth use of marijuana has emerged as a topic of concern for the county’s Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, said its chairman, Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy. The group’s formation in June 2014 had nothing to do with marijuana, but since pot became legal, “both adults and school-aged kids need to be educated that the same rules applying to alcohol also apply to marijuana — just because the state approved it doesn’t mean it’s OK to do.”

Edible marijuana, in the appealing form of cookies, brownies and candies, concerns Banks, both because it is intrinsically appealing to children and because novices can easily overdose.

“If people want edibles, they can bake their own brownies,” he said.

In response to a public-records request, Whidbey General Hospital said in October that, since legalization, it generated no data on requests for treatment or emergency room visits, marijuana addiction among adults, marijuana smoking or consumption by those under 21 or any other marijuana-related accidents, conditions or developments.

“Legalized marijuana is something of a social experiment,” acknowledged Keith Higman, the county’s Health Services director. “I have the same concerns as I would about any other products that alter brain chemistry. Impaired driving is a focus.”

“So is the inhaling of ignited products.”

Marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law, so it’s off limits to military personnel, said Whidbey Island Naval Air Station spokesman Tony Popp.

Random drug tests are administered without warning. Of 765 tests administered in 2014, only two came back positive. Of the 693 administered so far this year, none came back positive.

Banking

Because banks are federally regulated, they tend to be leery of accepting money from growing, processing or retailing the substance. That makes it hard for those in the marijuana industry to bank their money and to obtain loans, at least if they’re candid about the source of their income.

And it makes recreational marijuana an all-cash business, increasing the risk of theft at grow sites and retail outlets.

“The big banks nationwide don’t touch it, because though 25 states allow marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, the rules are different in each state, so they’d have to develop different systems for each state,” said Scott Jarvis, director of the state’s Department of Financial Institutions.

“Probably a half-dozen banks and credit unions in the state are doing some marijuana business.”

Future research

A great deal more research will be forthcoming on recreational marijuana use in Washington State, though only parts of it may be specific to Island County.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy is planning a massive, multi-year cost-benefit study mandated and funded by I-502. An initial report outlining the project appeared in September, and further reports are due on Sept. 1 in 2017, 2022 and 2032, examining the effects of legalization on public health, safety, youth use, criminal justice, jobs creation, revenue and much more.

A highly detailed report on numerous effects of marijuana use in Washington is expected by December from the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, through its High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, said Jane Wall, the government-relations analyst for the Association of Washington Cities.

The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington warns on the Liquor and Cannabis Board’s website that “marijuana use increases the risk of lower grades and dropping out of school.” That Institute will use 0.6 percent of the excise taxes generated by recreational marijuana sales to research the short- and long-term health effects of marijuana, it says on its website.

 

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