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Pot crime claims prove to be overblown, even as tax revenue soars

A customer buys some marijuana at Cannabis City in Seattle's Sodo district. (Photo: KCPQ-TV)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A federal crackdown on the legal marijuana business in Washington could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and put a large hole in the state’s budget.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump’s administration signaled it might reverse Obama-era policies of allowing voters to make their own decisions about marijuana.

“I do believe you’ll see great enforcement of it,” said White House spokesperson Sean Spicer.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions turned heads earlier this month when he warned that there was a connection to legalization and crime, saying "I'm not sure that we're going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store."

Pot disburs

Raw numbers say Sessions's claim doesn't appear to be entirely accurate, at least in Seattle.

Overall, crime is up since 2012, but violent crime is way down. In February, overall crime numbers were the lowest they've been in five years.

That federal confusion frustrates cannabis lobbyist Bailey Hirschburg.

“When we've been able to make changes, it's been citizen initiatives," he said. "It's been us going directly to the people."

Sessions pointed to crime and safety concerns in arguing against legal pot.

Seattle police have had pot enforcement as a "lowest" priority since 2003, long before the first marijuana stores opened. Q13 News found that 2017 has already seen a major drop in crime rates, and Washington's complicated marijuana laws could be part of the reason for that.

Buying legal weed is easy for customers, and they don't have much to worry about.

Stores, on the other hand, are run through the ringer.

“The way that you do that with marijuana is by employing our state's heavy vetting - our extreme vetting of marijuana businesses compared to states with federal law that have no vetting for marijuana sales,” Hirschburg said.

Then there's money. Because of taxes at every level, from cultivation to sale, pot has been a boon for Washington. The Liquor and Cannabis Board expects $712 million in tax revenue from pot sales over the next two years.

That's 10 times more than in the first year of legal marijuana sales, money that goes straight into the state's cash-strapped coffers.

Pot revenue accounts for nearly two percent of the governor's next budget, so losing that money would hurt the state.

But supporters say it could cost a lot of jobs, too

“There's a risk of them shutting down legal businesses. There is a risk of them leaving thousands of people across the state unemployed," Hirschburg said.

Those jobs and sales go specifically to marijuana research, along with recovery programs, and hundreds of millions for low-income health projects. That's on top of a robust $133 million that goes right back into the general fund.

And yes, someone has already thought of the children. Hirschburg claims teen marijuana use in Washington has stayed flat since legalization, while the largest spike has been in seniors 60 and up.

“So realistically, legalization is more likely to lead to Jeff Sessions smoking pot than any of his grandkids,” Hirschburg said.