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Washington State May Allow Out-of-State Marijuana Investors

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Investors from California to Maine could soon be pouring money into Washington under a proposal to allow out-of-state financiers in the state’s young pot industry.

That new wrinkle might breathe life into some underfinanced companies in Washington’s decentralized industry that counts more than 750 producers, limited in the number of licenses they can own and the size of their farms.

Or it may begin a creeping domination by big money, others say, that could lead to a takeover by corporate forces akin to Big Tobacco.

State regulators have allowed only those who’ve resided in Washington for six months to be owners or financiers in the state’s legal pot industry. But a proposed rule changebefore the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) would drop the residency requirement for financiers, though they’d have to undergo criminal-background checks, could only loan money to business owners and couldn’t own stakes in Washington companies.

Opinions about the proposal are mixed. Some in the industry are not worried. Some would like to see limits on out-of-state investment. Others are concerned that the rule change could be a small but significant step on the way to corporate consolidation and commercialization.

“I think most licensees want this because it’s so difficult to get financing,” said Heather Wolf, a Bellingham lawyer who represents pot entrepreneurs. Wolf said she represents small farmers “who can’t even get loans from their parents because they live out of state.”

But Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has consulted for the LCB, sounded a note of caution. “These actions would nudge the industry a little farther and a little faster down the path of commercialization we expect it to follow,” Caulkins wrote in an email.

Like “dying from 1,000 cuts,” Caulkins said, the “transition to Budweiser/RJR-Altria mode is going to occur in steps and stages.”

A bill in the Legislature would allow out-of-staters to own up to 49 percent of a pot company, but the legislation appears stalled this session. There’s a similar proposal before lawmakers in Colorado, which has a two-year residency requirement in its legal pot industry.

Washington’s residency requirement was established because Initiative 502 author Alison Holcomb didn’t want big corporations to dominate, said Rick Garza, LCB director. Decentralization is a hallmark of Washington’s industry, which limits retailers to three store licenses and caps the size of farms at 30,000 square feet, or about two-thirds of an acre. Unlike Colorado, Washington doesn’t allow growers to be retailers.
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