The Capitol Record

Q&A with Liquor Control Board chair Sharon Foster

Liquor Control Board chair Sharon Foster

Liquor Control Board chair Sharon Foster is at the center of the storm when it comes to implementation of Initiative 502, the state’s new law legalizing the sale and production of recreational marijuana.

Foster, along with board members Ruthann Kuros and Chris Marr, will make the final call on rules and regulations surrounding the new law.

An overflow crowd packed the first public forum on the rules process Tuesday in Olympia (listen to audio from the meeting). Another forum is scheduled for tonight in Seattle.

TVW caught up with Foster on this week to discuss the implementation process:

What exactly is the board’s role in shaping the state’s new rules concerning I-502?
We try to go to as many meetings and open forums and listen to everybody, but ultimately it is the three-member board that will make every single decision on what goes forward.

There was an overflow crowd at your first public meeting  yesterday. What kind of questions and concerns did you hear?
I think there was definitely a concern about the medical marijuana industry and how I-502 will impact that. There will be bills in the legislature this year dealing with medical marijuana. We are not in charge of medical marijuana so we are in a watch mode. There were lots of folks interested in small growers vs. large growers and there were a lot of questions about the banking industry – things we don’t have answers to right now.

These are historic times when it comes to marijuana legalization and Washington will be leading the way. How much pressure is there on the board to get this done right and on time?
I think there is an incredible amount of pressure to do it right. It has never been done anywhere in the world before to the extent that we are doing it. I think if we want any sort of approvals going forward from the federal government, we are going to have to do it with good regulations and controls. Safety has always been paramount in our mission as is having the retail market competitive enough so people don’t go to the black market.

Looking a few years down the road, what does Washington’s cannabis marketplace look like?
I see it looking a lot like how our liquor control board used to look like other than the stores will be owned and operated privately. There won’t be any state employees running those stores. The density problem is something we don’t know yet – what the density is going to be, what the consumption rate is going to be. Anything I would say would be so speculative it would silly to try to answer that. Every time we talked about how much marijuana needs to be out in that open legalized retail market we had people in the audience saying we should take that number and double it. We don’t know whether that’s true or not. That’s one of things we hope to learn when we hire someone who is more of an expert than any of us here combined and that can help us define the best way to grow, what the consumption rate might look like. We are going to depend a lot on that person or that person’s team to help guide us.

What are you expecting out of the consultant you plan to hire?
We are looking for whomever we hire to at least have the beginnings of consumption information for us and really that rate is going to drive everything else. The OFM voter’s guide statement said 187,000 pounds annually and that is what people in the audience last night said we need to double.

Gov. Jay Inslee just returned from meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Have you talked with governor?
The first thing we got from Gov. Inslee is that he was very encouraged by those discussions and that we should follow the mandate of the voters right now and continue with rule making. They emphasized to Attorney General Holder that we have a timeline and if they are going to do anything, let us know as early as possible. We are going to have to due diligence on anybody that applies for a license and that involves being truthful about where you are getting your finances, what your past criminal record has been both in state and in a federal database. We are going to do everything that we can to make sure the people we license do it legally under the rules that we set.

Voters in Colorado passed a similar measure in November. How are the two states working together?
Pretty closely. We are going to have a tele-conference with them next week which will be helpful. I don’t know how they have dealt with the banking issue we seem to not know what to do about. And we’ll be asking them about compliance.

How to do you see the economic impact of I-502 playing out?
There is going to be a lot more people selling and growing marijuana legally and getting into the retail market and those things trickle down into so many other jobs and industries. It’s going to be fascinating to watch what develops assuming we can continue on and become a legalized market.  It will be a whole new industry. Maybe we will get a reclassification and our eastern Washington farmers can grow hemp. There is certainly a demand for that material. A grower that grows lettuce and tomatoes can probably make a little more money growing pot in his warehouse than he does tomatoes. Let’s just hope we don’t see a shortage of lettuce, tomatoes and potatoes. If we can do it right, I think it’s an economic boom to the state of Washington because it certainly has a rosy revenue picture.

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