After the 2012 legalization vote, has Washington's experience with cannabis paid off?

click to enlarge Mike Boyer dressed the part to become Spokane's first legal pot buyer at Spokane Green Leaf in 2014. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Mike Boyer dressed the part to become Spokane's first legal pot buyer at Spokane Green Leaf in 2014.

It's been nearly eight years since July 2014, when Todd Bennatt — an environmental engineer at Kaiser Aluminum — opened the doors at Spokane Green Leaf. It was the first recreational marijuana retail shop in Spokane County, and may have been the first legal recreational marijuana retail shop in the entire state.

And that means, outside of Colorado, Bennatt and his partner had opened one of the first legal recreational weed dispensaries in the whole country.

"Some of our friends in Spokane were really shocked that both of us went into this industry," Bennatt says.

A decade ago, voters in Washington state and Colorado approved ballot initiatives approving the legalization of marijuana. It cut across political lines in unpredictable ways in 2012.

Even the Spokesman-Review editorial section — which typically endorses Republicans — supported the measure, proclaiming that legalizing weed would free up vast amounts of law enforcement resources for more serious tasks, and eventually "the nation might finally free itself from the costly, irrational yoke of prohibition."

But gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee explained that he was voting against it.

"I'm a parent, I'm just not comfortable right now," Inslee said back in 2012.

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith recalls the candidate wrestling with his conflicted feelings.

"It was like, nobody else had ever done this," Smith says, "Nobody knew the impacts for youth."

Flash forward six years later, after being elected, and Inslee's bragging on Real Time with Bill Maher that Washington state could "honestly say we've got the best weed in the United States of America." His uncertainty is gone.

By now, 16 other states have followed Washington and Colorado's example and legalized recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana is legal in 39 states. And the industry has transformed. When Bennatt started out, he only had two strains of weed. It took six months to stock edibles, and the only kind available were cookies.

Now, he says, he can offer strains for every kind of mood and personality, and they have 80 different kinds of edibles — savory edibles, sweet edibles, chocolate edibles, gummy edibles, drinkable edibles.

"Even after eight years, I'm amazed when I see something new come out," he says. "It's like, 'Wow, how did they think of this?'"

If there was a huge downside to all this legalization, the public hasn't been convinced: Public opinion has lurched dramatically in marijuana's direction, leaping from about half the country supporting legalization to almost two-thirds.

The only thing Bennatt's really surprised by is that legalization hasn't happened everywhere yet.

"We're all kind of waiting with bated breath," Bennatt says. "I kind of expected United States-wide legalization to happen by now."

But the verdict on legalization has been a lot messier than advocates imply.

Yes, cannabis did raise more than a half-billion dollars annually in tax revenue, more than double what liquor taxes raised. But local governments were given just crumbs.

"It was a real boon for the state budget, not so much for the county," Spokane County Commissioner Al French says. "The state decided they wanted to keep the money."

Less than 3 percent of the windfall last year went to local governments, though Washington state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig says the Legislature has since refined the funding formulas.

Cannabis growers, local retailers, law enforcement, the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, and local governments have all had to grapple with a thicket of shifting regulations and looming questions — some that still don't have definitive answers.

What about banking? How do they regulate pesticides in the industry? How about the smells coming from big grow operations? What do cops do with drug-sniffing dogs that are primarily trained to smell marijuana? Has all this raised or lowered crime?

And — as always — what about the children?

THE KIDS ARE SQUARES?

It wasn't like Inslee's concerns about underage youth using marijuana went away after recreational marijuana was legalized for those over 21. Those concerns drove public awareness campaigns and restrictions on a wide variety of advertisements.

Every two years, a sample of middle and high school students in Washington state are given the "Healthy Youth Survey," where they're anonymously asked questions about, say, whether they drink alcohol, have sex or smoke marijuana. In 2012, 9 percent of eighth graders, 19 percent of high school sophomores and 27 percent of high school seniors said they'd smoked marijuana in the past month.

But legalization had the chance to radically change that: Starting in 2014, marijuana became a lot more like beer. Theoretically, kids didn't need a dealer, just an older brother — or anyone over 21, really — willing to go to a dispensary and pick some up for them.

Instead, something astonishing happened: Nothing. It was almost eerie: In 2014, 2016 and 2018, the percentage of students — middle schoolers, sophomores and seniors — saying they'd recently used marijuana didn't move at all outside the margin of error.

It didn't surprise Billig. It's what he predicted. When he'd talk to groups of high school students before the law passed, he says, he always asked them the same question.

"I'd say, 'What's easier to get? A bottle of vodka or marijuana?' And it was always marijuana," Billig says. "People aren't selling vodka on the side, right? You couldn't go to somebody's garage and buy vodka."

Replace the black market with a regulated one, he believed, and it actually wouldn't be easier for students to get their hands on weed.

Other parts of the survey show that there's been a slow, but noticeable, shift in youth culture, starting long before the pandemic. Fewer high school seniors are reporting ever having had sex. There hasn't been as much drinking. It's not an entirely happy story — depression and anxiety have increased.

But after COVID hit, the number of students reporting recent marijuana usage didn't just hold steady — it plummeted in every grade level surveyed.

In 2021, only 16 percent of high school seniors, 7 percent for sophomores, and a scant 3 percent of eighth graders reported recent marijuana use.

Dan Barth, leader of the Spokane County COVID-19 Behavioral Task Force, says his contacts floated a few theories. Maybe the survey administered electronically this time was skewed. Maybe with schools closed and fewer parties being thrown, students had less access to restricted drugs. Emergency room physicians, he says, saw increases in the number of kids abusing substances like caffeine pills and bath salts, the kinds of things they could more easily obtain at gas stations.

Yet for adults, there was the opposite trend. Barth says he saw alcohol and marijuana usage go way up. People were trapped sitting at home, other coping strategies — like going to the gym — were locked down, while Inslee declared both liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries "essential businesses" immune from lockdown.

"The microroutines that we manage our stresses were removed from us," says Barth. "There was an obscene amount thrown at the human condition over the last couple years. "

Marijuana sales soared. From 2019 to 2021, cannabis tax revenue spiked by over 42 percent.

"People were looking for ways to de-stress," Bennatt says. "Marijuana tends to have the effect: to relax you and make things easier to deal with."

VIOLENCE AND DEATH

Some observers worried that the big increase in access to marijuana was increasing crime. Before he became a virulent anti-vaxxer, author Alex Berenson was arguing Washington state's drug experiment laws had triggered a bloodbath in murders and aggravated assaults.

But more careful evaluations by more, well, sober-minded academics found nothing of the sort. Washington State University criminal justice researcher Dale Willits methodically compared three years before marijuana legalization was implemented in Washington and Colorado to three years after and found that, while there was an initial impact on property crimes in Colorado, there weren't any apparent long-term effects on major crimes in either state.

"What we're really saying, the trends for crime for Washington and Colorado were the same as they were from other states that didn't legalize," Willits says.

Still, Willits cautions that it could take years — even decades — for the full impact of legalization to come into focus.

Incarceration has decreased, but it's difficult for experts to separate the legalization from all the other factors that have contributed to falling jail populations in the state. Racial disparities due to marijuana-related arrests fell, but officials have now identified another kind of racial disparity: the lack of racial minorities represented in the cannabis retailer business.

And it looks like there has been an increase in fatal DUI accidents. On average, the number of fatal vehicle accidents with impaired drivers in Washington state is about 18 percent higher than it was three years before the new law took effect.

"I definitely don't think we are going in the right direction," says Sgt. Ryan Raymond with the Washington State Patrol.

But most of that increase didn't come from DUI accidents involving only cannabis. Instead, the big increase came from those who were both drunk and high at the time. Of fatal accidents in Washington involving drivers impaired by marijuana, about three-quarters of them were also on another substance, typically alcohol.

"Alcohol seems to be a much larger issue for traffic safety," Willits says.

It remains unclear exactly how much the legal cannabis business has replaced the illegal market.

"You can get an eighth of flower for $15," says Bennatt, the Spokane Green Leaf owner. "How does the black market compete with that?"

But without as many arrests and raids, the black market has become much more opaque. Brian Smith, spokesman for the state's Liquor and Cannabis Board, says that experts expected about a quarter of the illegal market to remain no matter what the legal market does. And the black market in neighboring Oregon, according to a recent Politico exposé, is thriving.

Much more recently, there's been one area where crime is connected to marijuana dispensaries — they've become victims of armed robberies. In Western Washington, there have been about 70 armed robberies of cannabis dispensaries in 2022 alone. Two employees have been shot.

"You can get an eighth of flower for $15. How does the black market compete with that?"

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"The retailers are very afraid," Smith says. "They have really stepped up armed security."

But that's more a symptom of cannabis not being legal enough. With marijuana still technically banned at the federal level, banks and credit card companies have been wary of providing services to cannabis retailers at all. The result? They have a lot of cash on hand, making them prime targets. The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a legislative fix to the banking problem six different times — and has even voted to decriminalize marijuana twice. But the Senate won't budge.

It's not as much of an issue in Spokane, where Bennatt says multiple credit unions are willing to work with dispensaries, and Bennatt stresses that he can take debit cards.

But that's why it still feels absurd: The federal government wants to have it both ways.

"We're doing something that's federally illegal, but you damn sure better make your IRS quarterly payments on time," Bennatt says.

But there's no question that, bit by bit, the stigma against cannabis has changed, he says.

"Over the years, many people that we knew that were totally against it are now regular customers," he says.

He allows himself a little bit of gloating.

"See, we told you," Bennatt tells them. "Isn't it nice to have a little gummy at the end of the long week?" ♦

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...

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