It was the strangest wine lunch I’d ever attended.
I dreamed I was lunching with a group of winemakers, tucking into chicken and pasta while sipping white wines and red, with bottles being passed from table to table. Then, a nice grandmotherly lady stood up at the podium and started talking about cannabis. She told us how cannabis is now legal and we had better get used to it, that a legal cannabis industry won’t hurt the wine business, and that cannabis legalization is coming to states around the country and should not be feared.
But this was no dream! This wine lunch happened exactly like that at the WineAmerica Annual Board Meeting last month in Walla Walla, Washington. I was invited to attend by my daughter, Tara Good, the Association’s Director of Operations.
She wanted me there to shoot pictures, but as the former publisher of an industrial hemp journal back in the 1990s, I was curious to hear what this new paradigm of legal weed would sound like.
All rise for the Queen of Weed
The speaker was Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, dubbed, the “Queen of Weed, by the media.
Foster stated flat out, “Public safety is the most important paramount duty of our job and protecting children is the focus. There’s no doubt that young children should not be using this product anymore than they should be using alcohol.”
After the passage of the 2012 referendum I-502, she said the agency was tasked with drafting rules, licensing applicants, and enforcing the new cannabis law in licensed locations.
“There isn’t any joke that I or the Colorado people haven’t heard,” she said. “After the next legislative session we’ll be named the Liquor Cannabis Board.”
The Washington wine industry started very very tiny and look at it today. We are the second largest producer in the US, so we’ll see where that takes us with marijuana.
Talk about a brave new world.
Foster put the wine-versus-weed debate in this perspective:
“We look at how long marijuana has been illegal in the US and in Washington State, and now that prohibition has ended in the state of Washington, it’s soon to come to many of your states. The Washington wine industry started very very tiny and look at it today. We are the second largest producer in the US, so we’ll see where that takes us with marijuana. Next week, Oregon and Alaska will vote on legalization much like Washington and Colorado, and in 2016 you’ll certainly see lots of other states with that on their ballot.”
Foster outlined the similarities and differences between liquor and cannabis regulations. Like liquor, the state will adhere to a three-tier system, but with a twist. Instead of production, distribution and retail, the cannabis industry will have tiers for production, processing, and retail.
Processors will buy plant matter from producers, and create oils, edibles and other consumables from it. Producers can also be processors, and visa-versa, but they can’t sell cannabis like, from a tasting room. Retailers may only sell cannabis that they purchase from the producers. She also estimated start up costs for producers and processor are likely to be around $300-400 thousand dollars, a little less than a small winery.
After Foster threw the discussion open for questions, I was pleasantly surprised that not one question showed any of that old-time, anti-drug, ‘what message does this send to the children!’ bias. Refreshing as the sauvignon blanc I was sipping.
The wine makers questions were all quite practical, such as how the board will regulate promotion and marketing.
Foster answered that retail signage is limited to a 4×4 sign on the door and retailers can’t advertise within 1000 feet of the store or prohibited areas. But nothing will stop retailers from advertising in the newspapers.
Banking is a problem for cannabis businesses, she said, since the banking industry is federally regulated and the federal law still prohibits cannabis. Foster said that while most banks won’t take deposits, credit unions are setting up accounts for $500 that come with a $150 monthly fee, which contributes to their tax liability.
“Without banks, people bring boxes of cash (to pay taxes in Olympia) and that makes us laugh.”
If would be more funny if it weren’t so dangerous.
Someone asked, “Have there been grow house robberies?”
Yes, Foster answered. “The two times we had someone try to rob some place, they’ve been were caught in 20 minutes because of security cameras. We think we have a robust security system on all three tiers. Those cameras are everywhere.”
Transporting cannabis cash is a problem since federal law prohibits the use of armoured cars or even the hiring of security guards. But Foster said they are working to straighten that out.
But while security devices are mandatory, the industry is not allowed to have firearms on premises, according to federal law. That made one Colorado winemaker pipe up about 2nd Amendment rights.
Since a portion of the cannabis tax revenue is earmarked for research, Foster said the board is expecting the University of Washington to research cannabis benefits and harms.
“We have people wanting to set up schools to educate how to grow, to make sure if you buy purple koosh here it’s the same thing as over there.”
There’s something truly adorable about a middle-aged woman conservative woman mispronouncing the words, Purple Kush, in a sentence.
…if you’re using marijuana, you’re going to get the munchies, so we advise that you serve a glass of your state’s wine.”
Foster was asked about the demographics showing the overlap of cannabis and wine consumers.
“There is some angst among wineries and distillers about pot taking business away,” Foster answered. “I don’t thing there’s anything that shows that. I would say if you’re using marijuana, you’re going to get the munchies, so we advise that you serve a glass of your state’s wine.”
Someone asked, “How do you keep wine pot separate?”
“Is marijuana safer than alcohol? I don’t know,” she answered. “Anything in moderation is probably ok. We do know the 80 /20 rule which is that 20% of the population manage to screw up everything we want to do. The reason we have the regulations we do is because of those people.
“For some of you that may face this in the next few years, it will likely be given to your alcohol regulatory board, and you will likely be given the same thing we were. I tell you, its monumental what you’re going to do, but that agency is the best to do the regulations because they know how to regulate alcohol.”
I would hope that happens to any state that goes (to legalization), and it will be Oregon and Alaska by next week. California will have it on its ballot in 2016.”
A former senator form South Dakota commented about fighting federal intervention and supremacy clauses.
“A lot of it will depend on where we are in 2016, what administration is in charge of the federal government, and how well Colorado and Washington have faired,” she said. “Have we done it well, have we totally screwed it up for the rest of the nation? What kinds of arrest are we making, what kind of violations are happening, what kind of robberies are happening, or have we managed to do such a well-regulated market that it shall go forth.”
Foster, advised the wine people, “If (cannabis legalization) comes to your state, be as transparent and open as possible.”
She closed her speech an anecdote that pretty much summed up the new cannabis paradigm.
“One of the groups I spoke with were physicians and I was just chatting with an ER doc and asked him, “Are you seeing a lot of 14-18 year olds coming in that have gotten ahold of this (cannabis) and overdosed? And with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘No Sharon, it’s more people your age!’”
Laughs all around.
“For a girl from the 60s, it’s a different kind of weed.”
For an old-time hemp lady, this was a dream come true.
What do you think? Will cannabis help or hinder the Washington wine industry? Washingtonians, please offer your perspectives.