State seeks experts on how to develop pot industry

OLYMPIA — State officials tasked with developing a legal marijuana industry in Washington state have a problem: There’s no similar system anywhere in the world that they can look to for guidance.

The state’s Liquor Control Board also says it has little insight into the basics of pot cultivation, such as how the marijuana should be grown, how much acreage the state will need to develop sufficient supply, how it should be processed or how it should be sold at the retail level.

They are looking to solicit bids from experts from around the country while at the same time taking plenty of unsolicited phone calls from those who want to help.

“There are a lot of people who think they have a lot of expertise in this area,” said Rick Garza, deputy director of the Liquor Control Board, during a state Senate hearing Friday.

State leaders are moving ahead with developing the system even as they await word of whether the federal government will oppose it. Several state agencies have been forming teams that will look at issues such as licensing, legal matters, enforcement and education.

Alison Holcomb, the drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington State who led efforts to pass the marijuana legalization initiative, said the goal of the measure was to make the marijuana retail outlets similar to the recently disbanded state-run liquor stores. She says they would be very controlled, very boring retail outlets with limited signage.

Holcomb said they don’t envision state employees selling the marijuana, however, as they want individuals to volunteer to lead the shops since there is still uncertainty over how the federal government will respond.

“They do still risk arrest and prosecution under federal law,” Holcomb said.

Garza said they knew from the beginning that Washington would be creating a system that would be unprecedented in the U.S., so officials started looking internationally for guidance.

They didn’t find much help there, either.

Even countries that are friendly to marijuana users hadn’t really gone beyond decriminalization, so Washington will be pioneering with its regulated system.

Possession of marijuana will be legal in Washington state next Thursday, but the process of buying and selling won’t be in place for probably another year or so. State financial experts estimate it could raise nearly $2 billion in tax revenue over the next five years.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, urged state officials to move quickly on developing the system — perhaps faster than its original timeline. He expressed concern that drug gangs would take over the market and entrench themselves before the state has a chance to get organized.

“The more time that goes on, the more we’re asking for trouble,” Kline said.

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