WSLCB - Executive Management Team
(December 9, 2020) - Summary

Tri-Cities WSLCB Officer Home Protest

Agency leadership ran through the top issues drawing media attention to WSLCB in addition to licensing, enforcement, legislative, traceability, and Cannabis 2.0 updates.

Here are some observations from the Wednesday December 9th Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) Executive Management Team (EMT) meeting.

My top 3 takeaways:

  • Staff updates touched on the agency’s communications, licensing, enforcement, and legislative work.
    • Communications Update. Director of Communications Brian Smith presented "hot topics in recent months" observed during his team’s media contacts which averaged “three to four per day.” He considered that “in normal times this would be more than most agencies would ever see” but WSLCB was one of the state agencies “impacted by the COVID stuff.” He relayed “five major themes that we’re seeing” from press outlets (audio - 11m):
      • General Non-Compliance. “These are localized stories” about non-compliant behavior by specific businesses “all over the state,” Smith said. He noted media interest in punitive actions WSLCB staff took, like an “emergency suspension for Loggers Inn” on November 4th, saying similar stories had occurred in “pockets around the state." Smith then explained the standard response to these questions was that in investigations of licensees the “intent is not the penalties, but to bring…the licensee into compliance."
      • Tri-Cities Bars. Smith recounted “a really intense period” in which he fielded “multiple calls a day from news outlets from all around” after a November 24th incident where WSLCB enforcement officers were thwarted from closing a Kennewick bar in violation of temporary restrictions by a crowd of armed customers, as well as a protest outside an officer’s home. He described the protest as “way out of bounds" as the officer was "just doing his job. He was carrying out the Governor’s public health directive on behalf" of the agency. Beyond the agency and police union condemnation, a Tri-City Herald editorial called the protest “no way to channel” anger over business restrictions, which Smith noted “we don’t see too often anymore on our behalf.” He believed most businesses were “putting up” with noncompliant “outliers” and following the rules. Chief of Enforcement and Education Justin Nordhorn added that Governor Jay Inslee had personally contacted officers “and expressed his appreciation for, you know, their efforts...helping people get into compliance” as well as “taking the guidance and the protocols serious[ly].” He added that Inslee asked about ways to improve “these types of things” and Enforcement staff gave recommendations and highlighted challenges. Nordhorn’s impression was that the conversation was “well received” in the division.
      • Social Equity. Smith described events WSLCB had “been a part of from the beginning" including the agency’s equity outreach events and the Washington State Legislative Task Force on Social Equity in Cannabis (WA Task Force on Social Equity in Cannabis) in addition to stories outside the agency’s control like “the Shawn Kemp story...which also raises the same types of questions.” He reported talking about the subject with the Washington Post “at length” and noted Director Rick Garza planned to speak with their reporter the following day. Smith shared the agency’s view that Initiative 502 “didn't account for people that were harmed by, disproportionately by, the war on drugs, specifically people of color.” He’d told the press that medical dispensaries at the time the initiative passed in 2012, including many who didn’t get licensed by the State, “varied from some people who actually paid their taxes and registered [for a business license] to many that never did.” Smith avoided discussing individual cases, instead telling reporters “how the system evolved over time.” But he conceded that it was “true that Mr. Kemp was, is the only Black or African American owner of a store in Seattle” and noted that demographic comprised 3% of retail licenses statewide. He credited the Board with recognizing that equity “needed to be addressed” leading staff to draft HB 2870 to create a social equity program and legislative task force. Smith also brought up a Seattle Channel segment on the subject and coverage by KIRO-7.
        • While Initiative 502 and the campaign didn’t detail an equitable licensing system for WSLCB, which Garza called “a missed opportunity” during the agency’s equity outreach, the campaign drew attention to disparate cannabis policing based on race repeatedly: in a 2011 video (“Marijuana It’s time for a conversation”), in editorials, public statements from supporters in The Children’s Alliance, regional chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Washington’s ACLU called attention to racially disparate enforcement again a year after I-502’s passage.
        • On a personal note, as a volunteer organizer and supporter of I-502, I found agency staff’s understanding of the law intentionally obtuse---bordering on dishonest---and disrespectful to the many I-502 voters and supporters who understood far sooner than WSLCB the terribly racist effects of cannabis prohibition. Being limited to a single subject on state ballot measures and focusing on cannabis arrests in no way meant backers of I-502 were unaware of nor indifferent to devastating disparities in areas such as economic development.
      • States that Recently Legalized. Smith stated that conversations had begun with staff at the Arizona Department of Revenue and regional media after citizens elected to make their state the 13th to legalize recreational cannabis on November 2nd. Additionally, agency leadership hosted a WebEx with Montana officials “to help answer their questions” after voters there passed another legal cannabis measure.
      • Cannabis Use During COVID.  Beginning in March, Smith explained, the agency had gone from consistently seeing 10% year-over-year (YOY) growth in monthly cannabis sales “to 20, 30, 40% increases which is what we’ve been seeing in the months since.” He called it a national story that he’d seen in local media as well.
      • Board Chair Jane Rushford lauded the work of Smith and his team (audio - 1m) and Board Member Ollie Garrett was grateful for Smith’s help “with those interview processes” on social equity stories (audio - 2m). 
    • Licensing Update. Director of Licensing Becky Smith said her division’s “priority continues to be answering questions for our licensees," handling license alteration requests which had markedly increased during the pandemic, “and of course licensing renewals.” She then quickly listed other activities without going into detail (audio - 2m): 
      • Smith said the Licensing Division’s participation in the agency’s systems modernization project (SMP) was “going strong” as their business processes were up for analysis and transformation first.
      • Smith indicated that staff continued to “work around criminal history” in advance of receiving social equity applications.
        • On November 30th, Director of Legislative Relations Chris Thompson told lawmakers this re-evaluation of existing rule and policy was underway.
      • Smith said agency staff had been meeting with “local authorities that have bans and moratoriums” against cannabis businesses.
      • Smith remarked that Licensing staff were studying vertical integration of cannabis licenses or potential for farmers markets as they were “questions that Chris [Thompson] had taken.” Smith promised to bring what they learned to the attention of the Board and agency leadership.
      • Garrett expressed satisfaction with licensing incorporating feedback gathered during outreach events to get “prepared to have different outcomes” ahead of the social equity task force producing recommendations on licensing for the agency (audio - 1m).
    • Enforcement and Education Update. Nordhorn provided an update similar to his presentation to lawmakers on November 30th, going into more detail on the challenges officers faced with seven non-compliant alcohol licensees (audio - 12m). He later noted that WSLCB had posted job listings for two Compliance Consultant positions as the agency moved away from solely using commissioned officers. The new “compliance/consulting unit” already included “11 staff who are transitioning over into those positions, so we’re going to have a really good start by the first of the year” (audio - 1m).
    • Legislative Update. Thompson recounted his November 30th remarks to lawmakers including the agency’s late development of request legislation intended to make some coronavirus-related alcohol allowances permanent (audio - 11m).
      • At that time, Thompson said that “more than a dozen allowances" for alcohol licensees were being considered for “permanent status” in law. At publication time, no effort to make temporary allowances for cannabis licensees permanent had been confirmed for agency rulemaking or request legislation.
  • The agency’s Cannabis 2.0 (C2.0) initiative was scaled back to focus on more general agency priorities over the next two years (audio - 4m) .
    • Chair Jane Rushford last discussed the initiative on September 29th.
    • Rushford started off by acknowledging 17 staff members who participated in an internal meeting on the project on September 23rd.
    • During that meeting, staff reviewed the July 2018 board priority planning session. Rushford said the four priorities board members outlined at that time were “already works in progress or...have advanced into a favorable space and place.” She then mentioned the first C2.0 meeting in the summer of 2019 where participants “clarified roles and responsibilities with other agencies, statewide versus local government responsibilities” and other issues.
    • Rushford listed “areas to explore” which had been agreed to as “priorities for the next 18 to 24 months”:
      • “Continued SMP support”
      • “Continue our workforce support” for teleworking staff
        • During her update, Duffy explained that Governor Inslee had recommended State employees work remotely through June 2021.
      • “Consistent training and application of new rules, laws, and policies”
      • “Inclusion/Equity for future licenses”
      • “Public Safety, including product standards and testing”
        • Learn more about the agency’s Quality Control (QC) Testing and Product Requirements rulemaking project
      • “Review and identify what rules are necessary”
      • “Traceability system revisions, if any”
        • Rushford later asked Duffy to speak about traceability. Duffy commented that the last meeting of the Traceability 2.0 Work Group had been October 9th and facilitated “a better understanding of the requirements that different folks have.” She said staff were taking the feedback and “asses[ing] where the agency is and the external environment is with regard to cannabis” and would bring possibilities back to the work group. Duffy summarized the agency’s current goal for Leaf Data Systems was simply to “keep it as stable as possible for folks” (audio - 2m).
      • “Access to medically compliant products and advice
        • SB 5004, “Providing a tax exemption for medical marijuana patients,” was prefiled on December 8th by Senator Karen Keiser who mentioned the bill during a November 30th work session.
      • “Clarify rules, responsibilities, and relationships with other agencies”
    • Rushford noted a change in November 2019 away from broad collaboration among agencies with cannabis jurisdiction in favor of “one-on-one” meetings. She promised to “continue to build” bridges among agencies, even though she would not seek another term on the Board.
  • Wrapping up, Board Chair Jane Rushford briefly addressed the function of EMT events as “the only chance we have” for the full Board to hear from staff “and have this level of discussion” (audio - 1m).

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