For several years, there was one key person in the Washington State House to talk to about marijuana legislation: Rep. David Sawyer of Tacoma. And when the Inlander interviewed him earlier this year, he said he planned to resurrect a bill next year requiring a vote of local citizens, not just of a city council or a board of county commissioners, to implement local marijuana bans or moratoriums.
But Sawyer won't get that chance. A sexual harassment investigation revealed he sent "multiple inappropriate and offensive text messages" to one of his employees and made "multiple inappropriate and offensive comments and jokes" about another employee's sexual orientation. Even before he lost his primary in August, House Democrats stripped him of his position on the Commerce & Gaming Committee, paving the way for new leadership in the state Legislature on marijuana issues.
And we won't know who takes his place until after the November election, when committee assignments are made.
Current Commerce & Gaming Committee chair Rep. Shelley Kloba, of Bothell, is one contender. But her seatmate, Rep. Derek Stanford, is also interested in the chairmanship, and he has seniority. Both are Democrats.
Not only that, but the committee's ranking Republican member — Rep. Cary Condotta from Wenatchee — has retired.
"That does take a great deal of the institutional knowledge away from the committee," Kloba says.
Fortunately, many of the biggest issues — like melding together the recreational and medical marijuana systems — have already been largely solved. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of questions left to be answered.
"When the voters approved of Initiative 502, there was some specific components of the excise tax that was supposed to go to research," Kloba says. But, for the most part, she says, that hasn't happened.
"I will be doing a big push toward increasing the research dollars," Kloba says.
There are many areas that local universities could focus on: Some of them could be researching the growth of marijuana like any other crop — what's the best way to get the largest yields with the smallest input? She also says universities could dig deeper into the effectiveness of treating cancer patients using marijuana. They could research how to clearly measure what level of marijuana leads to driving impairment.
According to former state Sen. Chris Marr — today a lobbyist for the marijuana industry — it's not the House that's the challenging spot for marijuana legislation.
"I would say the joke was that Senate Labor & Commerce was where marijuana bills go to die," say Marr.
Part of that reason, Kloba says, is that back when Democrats controlled the House and when Republicans controlled the Senate, the fights over larger, more partisan issues dominated the Legislature's time.
In fact, marijuana, says Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center), has been one of those few issues that defy simple partisan labels.
"Outside [Spokane's Sen. Michael] Baumgartner, most Republicans are afraid to even talk about marijuana," Rivers says. "But many say that it's here and it has to be managed."
And Rivers, who serves on the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee, is one of them.
"I have really worked hard to shut down the black market," Rivers says. In southwest Washington, she says, teen use has actually gone down with marijuana legalization, as the legal regulated market has made it almost impossible for dealers to make a profit selling illegally.
But one big hurdle remains: The federal prohibition on marijuana means that many banks won't lend to pot retailers or businesses. That means much of the business still needs to be done in cash.
"Where there's cash, there's questions. There's the possibility of the continuation of a black market that feeds off our young people," Rivers says. "It is my hope that we are able to move to our cashless system within two years."
She says she's been working with federal legislators in both parties to clear the way for that system. ♦