WA: Marijuana Businesses Incur Violations

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Ron Strider

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As legalized marijuana continues to find its footing as an industry in Washington, the state's Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) has found that advertising violations make up one of the largest categories of infractions among marijuana businesses.

In a report to the House Commerce and Gaming Committee's Nov. 16 work session, the LCB found 921 enforcement violations between September 2016 and September 2017, of which 14 percent were advertising violations, the second-largest category after the 18 percent segment, made up of marijuana producers who failed to utilize or maintain traceability; in other words, tracking marijuana through the supply chain.

LCB spokesperson Mikhail Carpenter accounted for this number by pointing out that marijuana businesses had previously operated for decades as an unlicensed industry, without any form of regulation governing how it could promote itself.

"What makes it especially tricky is that there's what was allowed by the initial set of restrictions, and then what was allowed by the LCB's additional rules, and then how the state Legislature chose to further refine what was permissible," Carpenter said. "It's tricky, because you're dealing with First Amendment free speech issues."

As an example, Carpenter noted that a number of marijuana businesses have been reported for employing "sign spinners" to hold promotional signs on the sides of roads.

"There are restrictions on how many signs you can have, and where," Carpenter said. "You're not allowed to advertise on public streets, nor are you allowed to depict marijuana plants or products in print, or with cartoon characters or costumes. It can be complicated."

Carpenter noted that the recorded violations are complaint-driven, with some coming from competing businesses and former employees.

"The public does file objections as well, but it can be nuanced in some cases," Carpenter said. "Not all reported violations are found to be actual violations, but they still go into that tally. But our ultimate goal is compliance, not to be punitive."

Carpenter encouraged any marijuana business owners with questions about potential violations to reach out to LCB enforcement officers, whom he promised would work with them to try to provide avenues for avoiding noncompliance.

"We try to forward guidance emails to our licensees, including updates on what the Legislature decides," Carpenter said. "We know that not everyone follows the legislative sessions closely.

To bring them up to date, Carpenter suggested that marijuana businesses check the "Marijuana 2017" tab of the LCB website at lcb.wa.gov.


Molly Fahrenschon manages Sea Change Cannabis, the first legal recreational marijuana store to open on the Olympic Peninsula, in July 2014, and the fifth to open in the state of Washington.

She agreed with Carpenter that owners of any cannabis business should remain abreast of the latest changes in the law, and when in doubt about anything, should consult LCB enforcement officers.

"We always labor over the law," Fahrenschon said. "We read it very carefully. Since we first opened, we've always operated in a way that would stand up to scrutiny. What else are you supposed to do?"

At the same time, Fahrenschon admitted to feeling somewhat frustrated at what she perceives as slightly inconsistent standards between LCB enforcement officers.

"It's like being in middle school, when the other girls' moms let them shave their legs," Fahrenschon said. "For the longest time, we couldn't have punch cards, because our enforcement officer said they were too much like coupons, but then we'd have customers come from other areas and ask if we had punch cards, like the recreational stores had where they came from."

Despite those inconsistencies, Fahrenschon has experienced success in promoting the store and its wares through social media, with tweets and Facebook posts sharing the store's weekly newsletter of available and impending merchandise, as well as its cross-promotions with the Discovery Bay Village Store and the Disco Bay Detour bar.

"We put a lot of energy into promoting our little community here," Fahrenschon said.

If Fahrenschon has one request of the state, in its enforcement efforts, it would be to create a universally recognizable, legally permitted symbol for marijuana businesses, one that would not subtract from the total space she's allowed for the two 1,600-square-inch promotional signs touching her building.

"When I lived in British Columbia, all the liquor store signs had the same font," Fahrenschon said. "I just want a brand that everyone will know."

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