OLYMPIA — With little fanfare in a drab conference room, the state Liquor Control Board adopted rules for a legal marijuana system after 10 months of research, revisions, wrangling with the federal government and wrestling with who-would’ve-imagined questions.
In a unanimous vote Wednesday, state officials charted the course for an experiment that seeks to undercut illegal dealers and launched the next leg of the journey: licensing a recreational-pot industry serving customers with 334 retail stores.
Adults will be able to walk into stores between 8 a.m. and midnight beginning next year to buy small amounts of marijuana products, including buds and brownies produced with state-certified safe levels of pesticides and other chemicals.
“The Washington state Liquor Control Board just built the template for responsible legalization of marijuana,” said Alison Holcomb, chief author of the legal-pot law. Holcomb is traveling to England, Poland and the Netherlands in coming weeks to discuss Washington’s law and rules, and is part of a new panel studying the idea in California.
Liquor-board members predicted a bumpy ride for the next year or so, with further tweaking of the rules likely.
“We might not have it exactly right today,” said board member Chris Marr of the 43 pages of rules. “But we’re in an excellent position to open stores in the middle of next year.”
State officials expect stores to open as early as May. Farms would start growing several months earlier.
In those stores, marked by a single sign that can’t be much bigger than 3 feet by 3 feet under the rules, consumers won’t be able to sample products. They will be able, however, to smell samples through screened containers that do not allow them to touch pot.
Childproof packaging will be required for edible products. All packages will contain warning labels saying marijuana has intoxicating effects and may be habit-forming. Labels will warn consumers of health risks, particularly the risks for pregnant women.
They also will show potency, as measured in percentage of THC, the key psychoactive chemical in pot.
In what state officials hope will be a competitive edge for the recreational system, retail stores will stock only products determined to have safe levels of pesticides, bacteria, moisture and metals.
Randy Simmons, the state marijuana project director, said he’s heard of growers who have added sand to pot to give it additional weight, who have painted pot to make it more desirably purple, and who have spiked buds with hash oil to make them more potent.
Labels will disclose all pesticides used in the growing of the product. Consumers can ask retailers for full test results of chemicals and foreign matter found in products.
State-regulated pot can’t be labeled organic, Simmons said, because the federal government bestows that standard and it still considers marijuana a dangerous drug. But the state is using federal standards for organic products as a model for its rules, he said.
Prices in stores will be determined by the market, not state officials. But state consultants have written about scenarios in which prices could range between $6 and $17 per gram depending on wholesale farm prices and markups.
Consumers will be able to buy pot grown under the sun in outdoor farms, as well as weed grown indoors, which uses more electricity and has a larger carbon footprint.
The rules give an advantage to indoor growers, Simmons acknowledged. That’s because rules limit all farms to a maximum of 30,000 square feet and indoor farms can produce four harvests a year compared with two for outdoor growers in Washington state.
Jeremy Moberg, an Okanogan County activist, and Holcomb, criminal-justice director for the ACLU of Washington, both argued for a more equitable system. They proposed limiting indoor farms to half the size of outdoor farms as one way to level the playing field.
But Simmons said the state wants to make sure it meets the estimated demand for 80 metric tons of pot next year. It might not if it cut the size of indoor farms, he said, and if it doubled the size of outdoor farms it might antagonize federal watchdogs.
Simmons believes demand will increase in time, and when the state expands its supply that will provide an opportunity for outdoor growers to make up ground.
State officials believe the 334 pot stores, which are allocated similarly to the state’s defunct liquor stores, will be enough. But Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has asked the state to consider allocating more stores to the city than the 21 it has planned.
If there are more qualified applicants in a city than stores allotted, the state will use a lottery system to pick winners, literally by drawing names, Simmons said.
The state can’t use a merit system to award licenses, Simmons said. Unlike contracts, which can rely on merit, state licenses are threshold-based, he said; if applicants meet the standards they qualify for licenses.
There appear to be more than enough entrepreneurs eager to meet the state’s requirements for growers, processors and retailers.
The Liquor Control Board is holding licensing seminars in seven cities this month to inform and advise entrepreneurs about the rules and application process.
Seminars in five cities already are fully booked. In all, of the 2,440 seats available at all seven seminars, 1,991 were taken by Wednesday.
The state on Nov. 18 will open a 30-day window for accepting applications for growing, processing and retail licenses, and expects to start issuing them, after background checks, in December at the earliest.
Some cities remain resistant to pot commerce and have adopted moratoriums and other restrictions that would effectively keep pot merchants away.
But others such as Seattle, Bainbridge Island and Bellevue are moving ahead with zoning and other regulations for permitting pot commerce.
Several lawyers who advise pot entrepreneurs said cities seem to be warming to pot commerce now that the state has adopted rules and the federal Department of Justice has said it won’t try to stop Washington’s legal system — approved by voters last November — provided it is tightly regulated.
“It’s not happening quickly, but I do have a sense there’s been a bit of a shift,” said Candice Bock of the Association of Washington Cities.
Officials in some of the reluctant cities have said they’re worried about the impact of legal pot commerce on community character. But the Liquor Control Board’s Marr said that excluding legitimate pot businesses only promotes the illicit pot market that already exists within those communities.
To keep store ownership from concentrating in the hands of a few, the rules do not allow a person or company to own more than three retail stores in the state.