No Room to Shop

Marijuana legalization may make it near-impossible to sell the stuff.

With Initiative 502 now in effect, it is now officially fine and dandy to smoke pot. Buying pot, though—that’s another question. Marijuana stores don’t become legal for another year. And even when they do, there will remain the tricky question of where they can be located.

Pot activist Ben Livingston illustrates just how tricky that is. A longtime member of the Cannabis Defense Coalition and the recent founder of a one-man operation called the Center for Legal Cannabis, Livingston has been working on a map of King County that includes big, colorful dots over all the spots where pot shops are banned. A provision in I-502 prohibits such shops from operating within 1,000 feet of schools or other facilities that cater to kids.

On Livingston’s map, schools are represented by red dots, parks by orange, and pools or arcades by blue. While the project is still a work in progress, the gist is clear from the big, sometimes overlapping bubbles that almost completely cover the map. “Ninety-five percent or more of the city of Seattle is a prohibited zone,” Livingston says. Aside from a few blocks here and there, about the only allowable land can be found in SoDo, he notes. Otherwise pot entrepreneurs will have to head for the suburbs, where the no-pot zones are more spaced out.

Livingston—who has shown his map to the state Liquor Control Board, which is charged with regulating marijuana businesses—finds this troubling. “In order to have legal cannabis, you need to allow retailers to service the populated areas. You shouldn’t have to drive out to Snoqualmie,” he says.

Former I-502 campaign director Alison Holcomb, now back at her old job directing the ACLU’s drug-policy project, does not contest the map. In fact, she calls it a “great graphic.” But she expresses no regrets about the paradox it represents. In writing the relevant provision of I-502, she says “the key thing” was adhering to federal laws that upped the penalties for drug operations within 1,000 feet of schools and other facilities. It was a strategy aimed at trying to stave off a backlash from the feds.

And while Holcomb recognizes that the legislature might tinker with the law if it becomes too difficult to site pot stores, she also observes that pre-election surveys done by the I-502 campaign indicated that “voters weren’t as concerned with making marijuana really available as they were with ending marijuana prohibition.”

Those who do want readily accessible pot stores can be gratified about one thing. Unlike in Colorado, which has also just legalized marijuana, cities will not be able to enact blanket moratoriums on pot stores. That’s because I-502 will be incorporated into the state’s overarching drug law, which prohibits local jurisdictions from enacting their own conflicting laws. If potrepreneurs can find a sliver of land that passes muster with I-502, they’ll be free to set up shop.