Washington State issues how-to regs on growing, selling marijuana

Washington State voters approved legalizing marijuana. Now, state officials are working out the regulations for growing, distributing, and selling pot. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, so Uncle Sam is keeping a close eye.

Elaine Thompson/AP
A T-shirt is displayed at 'Hempfest' in Seattle last month. Thousands attended the three-day marijuana festival – an event that was part party, part protest, and part victory celebration after the legalization of pot in Washington and Colorado last fall.

With the eyes of other states – and the US Justice Department – upon them, officials in Washington State have issued draft regulations for growing, distributing, and selling marijuana meant for recreational use.

The details announced this week include the number of shops that will be able to sell pot around the state (334, with locations based on population), the number of shops or growing facilities that a single business can operate (three per individual or corporation), the size of marijuana “grows” (30,000 square feet, or about three-quarters of an acre), the kinds of security systems that must be in place (alarms and video surveillance), and how far such shops must be from schools, parks, and other places where children may gather (1,000 yards).

In all, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the agency tasked with developing polices and regulations, the overall harvest for next year will be capped at 40 metric tons, which pencils out to about 8.25 grams annually per adult in the state.

That harvest level could change in the following years. The idea is to grow enough to compete with the illegal marijuana market without producing so much that it gets transported to other states where the drug remains illegal.

Washington State’s new law is the result of a ballot measure last year – I-502 – that legalized recreational marijuana. Coloradoans passed a similar law.

Law enforcement officials in the state are gearing up for enforcement.

“I supported I-502 last year because as a former narcotics detective, I can say with full confidence that the War on Drugs has been a failure,” Sheriff John Urquhart of King County (which includes Seattle) said in a news release.

“There has to be a better way,” said Sheriff Urquhart, who is scheduled to testify before the US Senate Judiciary Committee next week. “As far as marijuana is concerned, the citizens of Washington have decided legalization for personal use appears to be that ‘better way’. Law enforcement needs to respect their decision.”

Cannabis is still illegal under US drug law, and this has been a point of contention between the federal government and state officials easing up on criminal enforcement – especially in those 20 states and the District of Columbia where marijuana production, sale, and use for medical purposes has been legalized.

A big step in relieving that state-federal tension came last week when the US Justice Department announced that it would leave it to states to regulate individual marijuana use, recreationally or for medicinal purposes, as long as states “implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.”

But this doesn’t mean Uncle Sam is backing off entirely.

“If state reinforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust … the federal government may seek to challenge the [state] regulatory scheme itself in addition to continuing to bring individual enforcement actions, including criminal prosecutions…,” states the Justice Department memo to US Attorneys.

Under the new federal guidelines, the federal government's top investigative priorities include preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors; preventing sales revenue from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels; preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity; preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands; and preventing the diversion of marijuana outside of states where it is legal under state law.

Still, the trend in public opinion continues to move in the pro-pot direction.

In April, the Pew Research Center for the first time found majority support (52-45 percent) for legalizing marijuana – a noticeable 11 percent increase in support just since 2010. The Pew poll also found that a larger number of Americans – 60 percent – agree that “the federal government should not enforce federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana in states where it is legal.”

Details remain to be worked out with the proposed regulations in Washington State, and there could be legal challenges. As it is now, some counties and cities where pot shops have been approved by the state still outlaw such sales at the local level.

"A controversy that will certainly develop is whether cities and counties can outlaw marijuana," Ryan Espegard, a Seattle attorney who specializes in cannabis regulation, told the Los Angeles Times. "And can employers or landlords ban the use on premises? Can you be fired for using in your spare time? These will be playing out in the next year, next two years."

One former Microsoft executive, who declared his intent to become “big marijuana” by dominating the legal market, reportedly will challenge the three-operation limit on individuals and businesses.

If all goes as planned with the licensing plans, recreational marijuana could be sold in Washington State shops by next summer. 

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