A close reading of Seattle Times “Editorial: Where’s the weed? In Seattle, it’s in medical-marijuana dispensaries”


by Dominic Corva, Executive Director

Two days ago the Seattle Times Editorial Board published an opinion that is dangerously disconnected from reality and basic logic.  It reminded me of student papers I used to read and comment on at length, sentence by sentence.  So I thought I would apply that methodology to the essay: my comments in between each of their paragraphs are in red, below.  The disconnection from reality is dangerous because it demonstrates a total lack of understanding of how cannabis markets work, on the one hand; and the complex realities of I-502 implementation on the other.  In so doing it throws a political firebomb to the public, suggesting that the public should be outraged and that their anger should be directed against medical cannabis so that legislators can operate as though there is a crisis to be addressed.  This crisis frame has no place in Washington State’s efforts to set a global example for creating a peaceful transition away from the failed drug war approach implicated in the ST Editorial voice below.


FOUR months into Washington’s era of legal marijuana stores, a strange reality has settled over Seattle: The city doesn’t seem to care much about the availability of over-the-counter pot.

This is a pretty broad assertion.  What do you mean by “care”? One can care a lot but not do anything; one can care little but do something.  The implication seems to be that the availability of over-the-counter pot, as opposed to say farmer to consumer transactions, is a serious social problem.  Let’s see the argument …

Combined sales at Seattle’s recreational marijuana stores trail those in Vancouver, Spokane and even Bellingham. On a per capita basis, Seattle’s sales are about half of Yakima’s and one-third of Tacoma’s, according to data from the state Liquor Control Board.

Okay, comparative geography in which “retail sales per capita” are presented as evidence of the serious social problem.  The data offer other clarifying comparative geographies: King county has 7 approved retail stores, for 2 million residents, while Spokane has 6 approved retail stores for under half a million residents.  Pierce county has 7 approved retail stores for a little over 800,000 residents. This explains the “per capita” discrepancy pretty well. 

That’s partly due to the glitchy launch of the recreational market created by Initiative 502. Supply problems have led to sky-high prices and late-opening stores.

This is an implicit critique of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the body charged with implementing I 502.  Let’s be explicit: supply problems are primarily the direct result of the slowness of the approval process and the WSLCB’s decision back in February to cut maximum Tier canopy by 30%. These problems are compounded by a host of challenges totally unrelated to the approval process, including local jurisdictional permitting processes that are more stringent than those associated with the WSLCB.  They also include local pushback in other forms, such as the current lawsuit against one of the four Seattle retail stores that are open, by a neighborhood church. Retail stores face nearly impossible geographic restrictions that keep other approved retail stores from opening because they can’t find a cooperative landlord in an approved location.  Characterizing these factors as “glitches” that are “partly” responsible brushes aside the enormity of their significance, in favor of another explanation …

But the regional sales disparity defies logical and market forces. Does Spokane really have a closet habit nine times stronger than Seattle’s?

Say what? That disparity is easily explained by both decentralized political logic and market forces. And what is a “closet habit”? Perhaps one that isn’t related to Seattle as the historic state center of per capita consumption of mostly indoor, urban marijuana production?  and how is that question not a serious one, as opposed to a sarcastic one?

No. In reality, Seattle marijuana users shun recreational stores because they’re getting the cannabis from a larger, cheaper and unregulated source: medical-marijuana dispensaries.

You have not supported your rhetorical answer to the sarcastic question.  Then you make an assertion completely disconnected from reality.  Right now over 300 medical access points serve Seattle/King county.  If all of these were shut down today, how would 4 open retail stores be able to serve the thousands of consumers demanding way more product than those stores could possibly put on the shelves?  More to the point, would consumers say shucks, guess I have to go to a 502 store, or would they tap into their social networks to access cannabis from the several thousand growers in the county that currently supply medical access points?  The assumption that consumers don’t know how to get cannabis otherwise is seriously disconnected from reality.

As Seattle’s former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan warned last month, medical marijuana is “not a loophole. It is the market.”

Was that a warning, or a statement of Federal perspective, or both?  If this sweeping, evidence-free assertion were true and not a political statement in a larger agenda, what again is the major social problem? In a complaint-driven policy environment, it is conspicuous that no evidence is being compiled as to the social harm piling up in the city of Seattle. 

She’s right. For that, blame the state Legislature.

Why is she right?  Where is the evidence? And ok, let’s see the case you must be about to build against the State Legislature …

How big the medical market is remains a mystery. Regulation of medical marijuana is so lax no one can measure it. No one knows how many dispensaries operate or how many customers there are, let alone how sick those patients really are. Yet, storefront green crosses are as ubiquitous as Starbucks.

 Hmmm, you would think Jenny Durkan might have a word about how mysterious it is, given that she was just quoted asserting that medical marijuana is the market.  One would need to know how big the market is in order to back up that assertion. Perhaps she should have said “We have no idea how big the black market is, but we are pretty sure it’s there’s nothing more to it than the medical market.”

Buyers pay no excise taxes on medical marijuana, so cannabis prices are lower than at recreational stores. “Green cards” needed to gain entry to dispensaries continue to be glibly handed out for as little as $50.

Medical cannabis prices are continuous with what they were before I-502 production and therefore excise taxes came into existence. There are many access points and lots of production, as opposed to I-502 which has very few access points and very little supply, which means even before excise taxes prices are higher.  The excise taxes are much higher than they will be in Oregon, so perhaps some of the problem should be associated with how high the excise taxes are.

“Green cards” — medical authorizations — continue to be “glibly” “handed out” for $50 where? Please let patients know so they can stop paying $100-$125 for them.  What does “glibly” have to do with anything, other than to smear the alleged motivations of doctors and nurses who are overseen by the Department of Health, not the legislature nor the WSLCB? And “handed out” implies that the process is easy peasy, rather than requiring medical records and an examination per the reality of the process.

This makes a mockery of the state’s landmark new approach to marijuana. Instead of sticking to the strict regime of I-502 — regulating and taxing marijuana, limiting sales to adults and investing in prevention — inaction has allowed the shadow medical market to thrive.

Which “this” makes a mockery of the “strict regime of I-502”? The landmarky-ness of the I-502 approach is that it is designed to operate on its own, no diversion into or out of or cross over in any way with medical markets, unlike Colorado where medical and legal are sold in the same stores. Further, by WSLCB policy, it was designed to capture at maximum capacity 25% of the actual state cannabis market.  Production capability right now is at approximately 800,000 square feet of the 8.5 million square feet of canopy that would constitute maximum capacity.  About one sixth — 60 out of 334 — of the alotted retail stores are open, many of these irregularly due to supply chain issues.  The state favors a gradual approach to implementation, partly because the WSLCB does not have the necessary human resources to inspect and approve it all in a timely fashion.  

The medical market was thriving long before I-502, and the black market was too.  The latter will thrive until federal descheduling and there’s nothing the state can do about that. And I am not sure why the medical market is being described as “shadow”: a shadow of what? the black market? and clearly it’s not “in the shadows” given the editorial’s reality-based observation that you can see it pretty clearly.

The Seattle City Council put a moratorium on new medical-marijuana businesses, effective November 2013. New storefronts had to become recreational shops, or comply with new regulations expected from the Legislature in 2014.

OK, good empirical facts!

But the Legislature failed — a good bipartisan proposal was tripped up over minor tax squabbling. The cost of that failure is mounting.

The first part of this, good empirical observation!  The second part of it: what cost?  what is the cost of not driving medical consumers back into black markets given that I-502 alternatives are just taking shape and probably won’t be fully up for another year?

When lawmakers reconvene in January, that legislation should be a priority — and not just for the tax revenue it would churn. The goal must be to serve legitimate patients, limit youth access and build a prevention campaign similar to one that beat down rates of teen tobacco use.

What evidence do you have that it is not in fact a priority?  Initiatives for shaping that legislation are going full-throttle, I can barely keep up with the different interest groups that are mobilizing for it.  “not just for the tax revenue” seems to be thrown in there lest the reader think that the “cost” referred to above is revenue that isn’t going to the state, or to (barely operational) I-502 businesses.  In what world does the suggestion that medical access points be closed down immediately serve the interests of legitimate patients, and where is your study that tells us what percentage of these are being served at all, much less adequately, by currently existing medical access points?  Where is the evidence that youth access is expanding due to medical access points?  What do teen rates of tobacco use have to do with teen rates of cannabis use?

Meantime, Seattle, which has been allergic to policing even the bad actors in medical marijuana, recently sent letters to 331 cannabis-related businesses, reminding those that opened after November that they were “in violation of city law.” City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office has sued five medical-marijuana businesses for failing to follow basic zoning and building codes.

Where is the evidence that Seattle hasn’t been policing bad actors? Your second sentence contradicts your first sentence.

The world is watching Washington’s grand experiment with legalization. In the state’s biggest city, the experiment is being run over by the ubiquitous green crosses.

You have not provided any reality-based evidence that medical cannabis markets are squeezing out 502 cannabis markets.  The reality is that until supply chain issues smooth out, prices come down, retail stores open, and retail stores stop runnning out of product, medical access points are not competing with legal retail for customers.  They can’t compete with something that doesn’t substantially exist yet.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus)