State panel sets rules for legal marijuana sales

SEATTLE — Washington became the second U.S. state to adopt rules for the recreational sale of marijuana Wednesday, setting what advocates hope will become a template for the legalization of the drug around the world.

“We feel very proud of what we’re doing,” said Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the Washington Liquor Control Board, as she and her two colleagues approved the rules. “We are making history.”

Washington and Colorado last year legalized the possession of up to an ounce of pot by adults over 21, with voters deciding to set up systems of state-licensed growers, processors and sellers. The measures put state officials in the difficult position of crafting rules for a fledgling industry barred by federal law for more than seven decades.

Washington’s liquor board devised the rules after nearly a year of research, debate and planning, including public hearings that drew hundreds of people around the state. They cover everything from the security at and size of licensed marijuana gardens, to how many pot stores can open in cities across the state.

Sales are expected to begin by the middle of next year, with supporters in Washington hoping taxed pot might bring the state tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, with much of the revenue directed to public health and drug-abuse prevention.

“What the Liquor Control Board has done is build a template for the responsible regulation of marijuana,” said Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who drafted Washington’s marijuana initiative. “This is a template that is going to be reviewed by other states, and already is being reviewed by other countries,” including Mexico, Uruguay and Poland.

Colorado approved its pot industry rules last month, and sales are expected to begin in some cities there at the beginning of 2014.

Colorado and Washington’s rules are largely similar, although Colorado will allow stores to sell both recreational and medical marijuana. Both states will require such measures as seed-to-store tracking, background checks for license applicants, and child resistant packaging.

Members of the Washington liquor board said they tried to strike a balance between making marijuana accessible enough that legal pot would undermine the black market, but not so accessible that it would threaten public health or safety. The board hopes the sale of legal pot will capture about one-quarter of the total pot market in the state, for starters.

Under the rules, the board will issue licenses for up to 334 marijuana stores across the state, with 21 of them in Seattle — a figure some have questioned as too low, considering the city estimates about 200 medical marijuana dispensaries are operating there. The City Council has passed zoning regulations for pot businesses that would require medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain a state license or stop doing business by 2015.

The rules limit the number of licenses that anyone can hold to three — an attempt by the board to stamp out any dreams of marijuana monopolies before they start. They also prohibit out-of-state investment in pot businesses and require quality-control testing of marijuana by third-party labs. Marijuana must be tracked from seed to sale, and packages must carry warnings about the potential dangers of pot use.

Hilary Bricken, a Seattle lawyer who is advising businesses that hope to obtain marijuana licenses, said her clients largely are content with the regulations, though some are disappointed by the three-license max and the ban on out-of-state money.

“It’s a huge undertaking, and the board has been extremely fair,” she said.

Washington’s rules take effect in one month, and the state plans to begin accepting license applications Nov. 18.

Colorado’s rules require businesses to use a state-run online inventory tracking program to document the plant’s journey from seed to sale. Marijuana also must be placed in opaque, child-resistant containers before being taken out of a store, and recreational pot stores won’t be allowed to advertise to people under 21.

Marijuana shops are set to open in Colorado in January but only in a handful of cities that have voted to allow them, including Denver.

The federal government announced earlier this year that it would not sue Washington, Colorado or other states over plans to tax and regulate marijuana sales for adults over 21, provided they address eight federal law enforcement priorities, including keeping marijuana off the black market and keeping it away from kids

Washington’s legal marijuana law includes zoning requirements keeping the businesses away from schools, parks and playgrounds.

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Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle

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