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Marijuana legalization initiative becomes law in Washington

Washington voters have made their state the first in the nation to legalize recreational pot use, setting up a showdown with a federal government that backs the drug's prohibition.

Update: Colorado also passed a law making possession of up to an ounce legal. That state will also allow individuals to grow six marijuana plants. Oregon's pot legalization effort failed.

The Washington measure sets up a system of state-licensed marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, where adults over 21 can buy up to an ounce. It also establishes a standard blood test limit for driving under the influence.

Estimates have showed pot taxes could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the sales won't start until state officials make rules to govern the legal weed industry.

Initiative 502 would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and make simple possession legal starting Dec. 6. In about a year, the law will establish an elaborate state-regulated apparatus for growing, processing and selling marijuana.

The battle lines 

The initiative gained support in polling as the election drew near, thanks in part to a well-crafted advertising campaign, featuring a former US Attorney. That led one pollster to ask if voters were making an informed choice, given the lack of organized opposition to the initiative. Critics of the initiative worried it would lead to more youths trying the drug, take away a law enforcement tool from officers on the streets, and fail to stamp out the black market for pot because the prices in state-licensed stores would be too high.

The initiative was crafted under the auspices of the Seattle office of the American Civil Liberties Union, and lead-author Alison Holcomb says she took lessons from failed legalization attempts in California and other states. Focus groups showed that swing voters would reject it if they thought it might increase drugged-driving or make marijuana widely available.

The ACLU has long questioned the way the national War on Drugs has disproportionately affected blacks and other minority groups. They point to statistics showing that while marijuana use is about even between blacks and whites, black men are 3 times as likely as white men to go to jail for it.

This disproportionality argument won support for legalization from the groups such as the NAACP.

Sets new DUI standards

One of the most controversial elements in the initiative among people who already use marijuana, especially those who use it for medical reasons, is the standard it sets for the amount of THC in the blood, if you happen to be pulled over while driving.

The initiative “establishes a new DUI “per se” limit of 5 nanograms of active delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter of whole blood (5 ng/mL).”

That part of the initiative was part of an effort to allay fears that legalizing pot would lead to more impaired drivers on the roads. And it would change a process that, right now, relies heavily on the officer’s judgment, as we reported in our story “Will legal marijuana make our roads more dangerous?”

Tax revenue estimates

Office of Financial Management was charged with estimating how much tax revenue the marijuana initiative would generate.

“Assume $12 per gram. Medical marijuana dispensary prices on average range between $10 and $15 per gram with some premium products exceeding $15 per gram. Based on average retail mark-up practices, producer price is $3 per gram and processer price is $6 per gram. No price elasticity is assumed.”

OFM uses this retail price for estimating potential tax revenues from marijuana sold in stores (nearly $600 million a year). However, OFM acknowledges this rough estimate could be off by a large amount.

How many will 'use'

They assume from federal surveys that there are nearly 363,000 “users” currently in Washington.

This seems to be the closest thing to a reliable estimate. But many researchers say it underestimates the number by 20-40%. That means there could be as many as 508,000 users.

Is that a lot?  At the high end, it would be about 7.4% of the state’s population. (Or, in the official estimate, one out of every 16 adults over age 25.)

Quality control

Marijuana snowcones.JPG
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Pot-infused snow cones at a medical marijuana event in Seattle got us wondering if marijuana isn't practically legal already.

The marijuana initiative requires the state of Washington to create a grading system for cannabis. Is it good stuff? Or low-grade? A blend? How much THC (the active ingredient that gets you high) is it packing?

In the language of Initiative-502, the state Liquor Control Board is charged with:

"(8) In consultation with the department of agriculture, establishing classes of marijuana, useable marijuana, and marijuana infused products according to grade, condition, cannabinoid profile, THC concentration, or other qualitative measurements deemed appropriate by the state liquor control board;" (p.21)

If the state's in the business of licensing cannabis growers, then just like apple growers and wheat farmers, they need to set standards. And, in this case, the state is also licensing the retail stores, where people will want to know not only how potent the product is, but a bit about the taste and purity.

Growing and selling details

Nearly half the pages in the initiative are given to the details of growing and selling marijuana through new state-licensed businesses. 

  • Marijuana processor "means a person licensed by the state liquor control board to process marijuana into useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products. The "pot processor" would package and label useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products for sale in retail outlets and sell useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products at wholesale to marijuana retailers."
  • Marijuana producer "means a person licensed by the state liquor control board to produce and sell marijuana at wholesale to marijuana processors and other marijuana producers."
  • Marijuana-infused products "means products that contain marijuana or marijuana extracts and are intended for human use. The term "marijuana-infused products" does not include useable marijuana."
  • Marijuana retailer "means a person licensed by the state liquor control board to sell useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products in a retail outlet.

And, this phrase seems to be key to understanding all of the above:

"Useable marijuana" means dried marijuana flowers. The term "useable marijuana" does not include marijuana-infused products.

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