State can’t afford to fumble pot experiment

Washington voters have handed the state’s Liquor Control Board the unprecedented task of creating a production, processing and distribution system for legal amounts of marijuana.

It is an assignment of enormous proportions, fraught with unknown risk at every turn, and an undertaking never before attempted anywhere in the world.

Done right, and Washington will lead the way toward eliminating the marijuana black market and generate millions of dollars in new state revenue for education, health care and substance abuse prevention programs.

Done wrong, and our state will destroy national confidence that marijuana can be regulated safely, and would plunge the movement for rational drug laws back into prolonged prohibition.

Fortunately, the LCB staff and three-member commission are committed to moving slowly, but deliberately, because it knows, as commission Chairwoman Sharon Foster says, “We have to do it right.”

Since voters approved Initiative 502 last fall – decriminalizing possession of an ounce or less by people age 21and older, and authorizing the creation of a state-controlled growing and selling system – the LCB has been overrun with offers to help from lobbyists, entrepreneurs, farmers, lawyers and, shall we say, interested individuals.

People with a variety of self-interests are salivating over the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what might become a brand new multi-million-dollar industry.

In fact, the LCB needs considerable help. It needs all kinds of specialized knowledge, as well as input from multiple government agencies – agriculture, health and the attorney general high among them – and the general public.

This is the first time, at least in this nation’s history, that government has attempted to convert an exclusively black market into legitimate commerce. Without a proven model to follow, the LCB is so far drawing on its experience regulating alcohol.

To broaden its thinking, the LCB will host a series of six public forums, starting in Olympia this week, to hear from the public about this grand experiment. Citizens should come prepared to offer constructive input.

And the board is already seeking a consultant who can advise them on the product and the industry. It is particularly interested in someone who can validate the projected marijuana consumption numbers used in the state’s fiscal analysis.

Determining how many pounds of pot need to be grown each year – to meet demand, but no more – will drive the LCB’s rule-making about the number of growing licenses to issue. Advocates are already pounding on the board’s door. One group wants fewer growers with large operations, while another wants to set up a cottage industry environment similar to the state’s wine business.

That is merely one of many unanswered questions the LCB must consider in setting up the system. Another key component will be the vetting of applicants for growing or retailing licenses – including extensive criminal and financial background checks.

The state must ensure that any money poured into the system by investors comes from legitimate sources. The state must not allow itself to become an unwitting partner with criminal organizations.

How well the LCB writes the regulatory rules, and how tightly it intends to control this new industry, will in large part determine how much rope the feds are willing to give. President Barack Obama has said the federal government “has bigger fish to fry,” but that won’t stand if the state’s two U.S. attorneys lose confidence in our regulatory system.

The LCB is taking its role seriously, so state legislators should resist the temptation to fiddle with the new law during this session.

We need to give them time to get it right.