Legal pot in Washington: What it should look like

The News TribuneJanuary 23, 2013 

Here’s a gig. The state Liquor Control Board is looking for consultants who can tell it “how marijuana is grown, cultivated, harvested, cured and processed.”

Also, “How marijuana is infused into food and beverages. How marijuana should be packaged, labeled, transported and sold at a retail level.”

There are plenty of experts out there, no doubt. The question is, do they have to pass a background check?

This sums up the fix the liquor board is in as it tries to turn legal marijuana into reality.

Initiative 502 ordered the board to create a full-blown, highly regulated industry – “from seed to sale,” as the agency describes it. It has to make the rules for everything from licensed grow operations to processing centers to retail pot stores.

The problem is, nothing of the sort has ever been done. Anywhere. In the world. No one knows what it looks like.

As the liquor board proceeds to do the unprecedented, some principles ought to be followed.

For starters, the industry should be given no freebies. This is one case in which an initiative needs immediate tinkering by the requisite two-thirds majority of the Legislature.

The measure lets would-be growers and retailers into the game for a piddling $1,000 license fee. But legal marijuana could turn into a $1 billion-a-year industry. If it does, these would be licenses to print money.

If Washington must have legal marijuana, it should charge applicants what the market will bear. An auction, for example, could produce a bonanza of fees for the state – money that could help fund the looming struggle to keep cheaper and more abundant marijuana away from schoolchildren.

The Legislature should also let communities opt out of marijuana if their citizens so desire. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but I-502 prevents cities and town from barring the sale of it within their borders. One good lawsuit might settle that problem.

The liquor board itself has the authority to address another crucial issue: How much marijuana should be grown.

The initiative envisions quantities large enough – and prices low enough – to eliminate the existing black market. Yet surpluses would inevitably find their way into other states to feed their black markets. Covert exports will invite a deserved crackdown from federal enforcement.

But if this state’s black market continues to operate alongside the licensed retailers, the initiative will have served solely to expand marijuana use – which is supposedly not the idea.

Walking this fine line will be tough. Preventing expanded use by adolescents will be tougher, perhaps impossible. For pot consultants, opportunity knocks.

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