Washington Pot Czar: Cops Should Crush the Black Market

Aug 5, 2013

Washington’s marijuana consultant says police should act fast to squash the black market once state-sanctioned stores open. But in Seattle, that could conflict with the will of the voters.

Washington’s new marijuana law is designed to put the black market out of business, mainly by outcompeting street dealers and illicit growers. But so-called “pot czar” Mark Kleiman told members of the Seattle City Council that law enforcement will be a crucial tool. He said police can help drive customers into the legal market by busting illegal dealers and growers but the government is not ready to do that.

“Once there’s open, legal retailing and the prices have had a chance to fall, the illicit market is a paper tiger. But a paper tiger doesn’t fall over until you push it. And I don’t see anybody now ready to push,” said Kleiman.

In the past, Kleiman said, arresting a pot dealer would just make room for another dealer to take his or her place. Now, there’s a chance to actually move some of that dealer’s customers into the legitimate market instead.

One Council Member Not Convinced

Council member Nick Licata was not swayed by Kleiman’s arguments about law enforcement.

“I don’t see it as being as critical to the success of converting the underground market to the legitimate market,” he said.

Licata said many illegal growers are eager to get licensed and start operating above-board. Street dealers, he said, are more of a nuisance than a real threat.

Licata added that the strictures within the legalization measure, such as banning sales to minors, should be firmly enforced.

Who’s Footing the Bill

Then there’s the question of who would pay for any new law enforcement efforts. Kleiman noted that most of the tax revenue from pot sales will go toward public health and education, with none earmarked for law enforcement. So local governments would have to pay for any crackdown on illegal sales, even though the state is the one that would benefit.

Kleiman urged council members to push for more resources from the state. But it’s not clear how that would work in Seattle. Voters passed a law making marijuana enforcement the lowest priority for police, which could hamper any crackdown.