By Jerry Cornfield and Oliver Lazenby
OLYMPIA — The number of recreational marijuana stores in Bellingham and Whatcom County could nearly double under a plan to allow more retailers statewide.
The board in January intends to boost the number of retail stores it will allow to 556, up from the current maximum of 334.
Whatcom County will see its allotment jump to 29, from 15.
This means Bellingham, where six stores currently operate, could be home to 12 marijuana-selling businesses. Ferndale would be eligible for a second store, although the City of Ferndale currently has a moratorium on new marijuana stores. Lynden, which is allowed one store by the state, did not get another allotment since it bans marijuana stores. And unincorporated areas in Whatcom County would be eligible for seven more stores.
Whatcom County is one of 10 counties in which the allocations will be doubled.
Whether the plan would actually result in more stores is uncertain, as zoning rules and bans limit the amount of legal locations.
“Finding a location to operate will be a big challenge for marijuana retailers even in cities and counties that have not enacted outright bans,” said Heather Wolf, a marijuana business attorney, in a blog post on the increase.
Today, 12 stores are licensed in Whatcom County, according to state records.
The reason the state Liquor and Cannabis Board is taking this action is because the mostly unregulated medical marijuana market is getting merged with the heavily regulated recreational system.
By July 1, 2016, many dispensaries will be closing and the state wants to ensure their patients will have access to cannabis products they need when that happens.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board is working on two fronts.
First, existing marijuana businesses are obtaining an endorsement to sell products for medical use starting July 1 and an estimated 70 percent of them have done so, according to agency spokesman Brian Smith. Sixteen of the stores in Snohomish County had the endorsement as of Dec. 15, according to state records.
Second, it is increasing the number of stores even though the state is not close yet to reaching its current cap.
As of Friday, the state had licensed 223 stores and 195 were operating or reporting sales, Smith said.
But the state is now poring through nearly 1,200 applications for retail licenses including many from people looking to convert an existing medical marijuana dispensary to a licensed store.
About 100 of those have been given a higher priority because the applicant is someone who applied for a marijuana retail license before July 1, 2014 or operated or was employed by a collective garden before Jan. 1, 2013. In addition, these applicants have maintained a state and local business license and have a history of paying state taxes and fees.