The second statewide public hearing this week on the future of the marijuana industry was held in Seattle. Like the earlier one in the week in Olympia, this one had overflow crowds. The Seattle hearing was filled with people who have grown marijuana for years and want to go legit.
Under Initiative 502, possessing marijuana is now legal in Washington state, but it remains against federal law. Now the state’s Liquor Control Board must develop a licensing system for people to legally grow, process and sell marijuana.
The people who have been growing it illegally for years in Washington are now taking center stage. They’re applying to serve as consultants to the state and urging the state board to include them in any licensing scheme it develops.
John Eskola was one of the first to speak at the Seattle public hearing. “You need to bring us in,” he told the board. “We need to be part of this.”
He says he’s grown marijuana on Camano Island for years. He wears a Harley Davidson jacket and a baseball cap and jokes that he’s the “kingpin” for a group of growers there who work together to sell their product.
Eskola doesn’t send his marijuana to dispensaries. He said he gives a lot of it away to medical marijuana patients. But he has to meet his expenses. “I have a $600 a month electric bill,” he said.
So the rest of what he grows, he sells. “You still have to pay for all this stuff, so a lot of it is sold in the black market,” he said. Once it caught up with him. “Twenty-eight years ago I was in prison for drugs,” Eskola said. Now he wants to get a grower's license from the state of Washington, even though he’ll make less money than he does on the black market.
“Eventually you’re going to get caught. You’re going to get caught up in it. And bad things are going to happen,” he said. “We want to come out. And I think leaving us out is a huge mistake.”
Eskola is worried that he’ll be excluded from the licensing process because of his criminal record. But he said he and the other growers like him believe they have the experience to grow a good, safe supply of marijuana for the new state-licensed retailers. Eskola said among the growers who congregate at a local store, there is strong enthusiasm for seeking state licenses.
“Everybody is a grower there,” Eskola said. “So I’ve asked them, I’ve said ‘hey how do you feel about coming out?’ We want to come out. We want to be legal. We don’t want to feel like we can’t buy a new car because we can’t say that we have this money. We can’t explain why we don’t have jobs."
At the hearing, Eskola told the Liquor Control Board, “The war’s over! We won!” This response drew applause from the assembled crowd. He compares this process to the signing of treaties after the war ends. But Eskola and his fellow growers do have a certain kind of leverage. If they aren’t embraced and granted licenses by the state, he said they can always continue to sell to the black market.
The three-member Liquor Control Board has scheduled six public hearings around the state, although they said they're open to holding more if there's a need. They plan to issue producer licenses by this summer and to have retail stores in place by December. They're also in the process of hiring consultants with specific areas of marijuana expertise.