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April 22, 2013

Washington State Gears Up for Marijuana Industry

by Mike O'Sullivan

Washington is one of the two U.S. states where voters last year legalized the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana, even though the drug remains illegal under federal law. The other state is Colorado, and both are drafting regulations to govern cultivation and sale of the drug. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan visited Seattle in the northwest state of Washington, where officials expect a multi-million-dollar marijuana industry to be in place later this year.

Medical marijuana already was legal in Washington and 17 other states. At a Seattle dispensary called The Joint, a steady stream of patients comes and buys marijuana in its many forms, including marijuana-laced cookies and cannabis-infused soda. Founder Shy Sadis hopes to expand to sell recreational marijuana.

“All around Washington, and eventually some day, possibly in Oregon, California, Colorado, wherever cannabis is legal,” he said.

Medical marijuana requires a doctor's recommendation, and dispensaries are set up as non-profit cooperatives. A different framework is being created for recreational marijuana, said Washington State legislator Roger Goodman.  

“We have to have regulations that put in place means to produce cannabis, to process it and to sell it, that's economical enough to be sold at a price that's lower than the black market, and yet a price that is high enough to deter youth consumption,” said Goodman.

Under the new Washington state law, adults can possess about 28 grams of the drug. There is still no legal way to buy marijuana, however, except for medical use, until a production and distribution system is put in place in December.

Recreational marijuana will be controlled by the state liquor control board, and state officials are busy learning about cannabis and its effects on users. They face a steep learning curve. They have decades of experience with alcohol, but little with marijuana.

Recreational marijuana will be heavily taxed and the industry could be huge. State and local officials hope to gain hundreds of million dollars in needed income.  

They also hope to save money from not having to prosecute and jail marijuana users. Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes said marijuana laws have been applied disproportionately to racial minorities, as he saw upon taking office in 2010.

“That was an eye-opening experience for me, because of all the pending cases. Fifty-nine to 60 percent were against African Americans in a city with a seven percent African-American population, and a progressive city, I would add,” said Holmes.

Marijuana will be heavily regulated under the new law, and dispensaries will be barred from locations near schools and public parks.

Psychologist Steve Freng works for a joint federal-local law enforcement program called the Northwest High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, and said many questions about the new Washington State law remain unanswered.

“How demand may increase, how consumption and purchasing may increase, how it is going to impact folks under 21 years old, in much the manner that we are dealing with underage drinking right now,” he said.

Freng said at least 10 percent of users could become dependent on the drug. Supporters concede marijuana is a psychotropic substance that can alter perceptions and behavior. They say it is not for everyone, but insist that it is safer than alcohol or aspirin.

A medical marijuana user, 68-year-old James Higgins, thinks legalization is a good thing.

“They will put no more people in jail for an ounce of weed [marijuana] or a couple of joints [marijuana cigarettes]. I think it is a good deal that it is legalized. It is going to help the economy and the people,” he said.

Activist Greta Carter said these are exciting times in Washington State. “But also a very heavy responsibility that we do it right, do it conservatively.”

No one knows how federal law enforcement will react to the new state laws in Colorado and Washington. The U.S. Department of Justice has promised a statement soon, and Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes hopes they will wait and see how these social experiments develop.