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State touts extensive knowledge of new pot consultant

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Ted S. Warren
Associated Press

Green thumb? Check. Extensive knowledge of the black market? Check.

Throw in impeccable academic credentials and decades of experience with government agencies, and you have Washington's marijuana consultant — a team advising officials on all things pot as they develop rules for the state's new industry in legal, heavily taxed marijuana. 

The Washington Liquor Control Board introduced Massachusetts-based BOTEC Analysis Corp. as the presumptive winner of the consultant contract during a news conference Tuesday. The team is led by aUniversity of California, Los Angeles, public policy professor and includes the former chief executive of the company that is the sole licensed supplier of medical marijuana in the Netherlands. It also includes researchers with the RAND Corp. who will help figure out how much marijuana state-licensed growers should produce.

"These are, by far, the top consultants available," said Randy Simmons, who oversees the implementation of the legal weed law for the board. "We're serious about doing this the right way."

Washington and Colorado last year became the first states to pass laws legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and setting up systems of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores where adults over 21 can walk in and buy up to an ounce of heavily taxed cannabis. Sales could begin at the end of the year.

The votes left state officials with a daunting task: figuring out how to build a huge pot industry from scratch. The state's Liquor Control Board must determine how many growers and stores there should be, how much pot should be produced, how it should be packaged, and how it should be tested to ensure people don't get sick.

The board is doing a lot of its own research, with buttoned-up bureaucrats traveling to grow operations in California and Colorado as well as within Washington state. But the consultant's advice will also be important. The state is aiming to produce just enough marijuana to meet current demand: Producing too little would drive up prices and help the black market flourish, while producing too much could lead to excess pot being trafficked out of state.

BOTEC — it stands for "back of the envelope calculations" — is a 30-year-old think tank headed by Mark Kleiman, a UCLA public policy professor with a doctorate from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. The firm has evaluated government programs and provided consulting relating to drug abuse, crime and public health. It studied the results of an effort to crack down on heroin dealers in Lynn, Mass., and in the early 1990s advised the Office of National Drug Control Policy on drug-demand reduction programs.

Kleiman has written several books on drug policy and crime, including "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know," and he has argued that states can't legalize marijuana — federal officials would never stand for it.

"Pot dealers nationwide — and from Canada, for that matter — would flock to California to stock up," he wrote in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in 2010, when California was considering legalizing marijuana. "There's no way on earth the federal government is going to tolerate that. Instead, we'd see massive federal busts of California growers and retail dealers, no matter how legal their activity was under state law."

For that reason, some marijuana advocates questioned how committed his team would be to carrying out the will of the voters. But Alison Holcomb, the author of Washington's new law, said the choice of a consultant who isn't a pot cheerleader sent a message that the state is taking its responsibilities seriously.

That's a crucial concern because state officials are trying to persuade the federal government not to sue to block the law from taking effect. Gov. Jay Inslee has said he stressed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that Washington will have the best-regulated system possible, but the Justice Department still has not announced its intentions.

Steven Davenport, BOTEC's managing director, said that with more than 30 people involved, the team comprises a wide range of opinions on marijuana legalization, but none is relevant to the task at hand: figuring out how it can best be accomplished, balancing the needs of a working marijuana distribution system with the interests of public health.

"We understand the significance and the size of the task in front of us," Davenport said. "Our intent is to make sure the board does this correctly."

Other team members include Michael Sautman, former CEO of Bedrocan International, the international affiliate of the only company licensed to produce medical marijuana for patients in the Netherlands; the company is overseen by the Dutch Ministry of Health, according to BOTEC's bid for the contract.

Sautman "has consulted lawmakers and regulators in Canada, Israel and several U.S. states regarding how medical marijuana is produced and distributed in the Netherlands," the bid reads.

Beau Kilmer, co-director of RAND's Drug Policy Research Center, said RAND is already under contract with the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy to develop a new approach for estimating the number of marijuana users across the country and how much pot they consume. His group will build off that work to estimate use by county in Washington state, and that it could involve Internet-based surveys asking people to detail their cannabis use — to the extent of asking them to explain the size of their most recent joint, as compared with a photograph of a joint next to a credit card or ruler for scale.

"That's going to be a challenge, but I'm excited to work on it," Kilmer said.

The value of BOTEC's contract has not been set, but it is expected to exceed $100,000. The losing bidders have 10 days to contest the award.

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