Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, is known in these parts as the mother of marijuana legalization. She drafted Initiative 502, which voters passed overwhelmingly in 2012; the measure struck down prohibitions on recreational pot use and led to the creation of Washington's marijuana market.
On Tuesday, she helped inaugurate Seattle's first legal pot retailer, buying 4 grams of O.G.'s Pearl at Cannabis City in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood, after giving a rousing speech about the evils of prohibition and the benefits of decriminalization:
"What we are tackling today is the supply side of the equation. We're moving marijuana out of the shadows, regulating it for consumer and community safety, dedicating new tax revenues to keeping kids healthy and keeping them in school. We're finally taking marijuana out of the criminal justice system and treating it as a public health issue."
The day before the doors opened, Holcomb talked to the Los Angeles Times about how the new market will work, worries about shortages, and what the Evergreen State learned from Colorado, which began selling legal recreational marijuana on Jan. 1.
Nearly two years have passed since I-502 was overwhelmingly approved, and the first marijuana retail stores are about to open. How has the process been and how are you feeling about it all?
I'm excited. I think it's actually, in retrospect, coming in at the timeline we expected. The Washington State Liquor Control Board had until Dec. 1, 2013, to finalize the rules. They started taking applications for licenses before the deadline. It's pretty consistent with the timeline we envisioned. The one caveat I would add is that the licensing of the producers is going a bit slower than we had hoped.
How slowly is it going?
Because of the way the plant canopy has been broken up, there is not a lot of marijuana under production yet. Roughly 25% of the 2 million square feet [that the state will allow] has been licensed, let alone grown. ... As of the last update, less than 30% of the square footage had been licensed. That is including people who received their licenses last week.
How bad will the pot shortages be?
There's a limited number of stores opening this first wave. Perhaps that means the shortages aren't as significant as we're predicting. But there's a strong likelihood that these stores will run out of marijuana before they can purchase more and get it on the shelves.
Edible marijuana products won't make it to store shelves for a while, because the Liquor Control Board passed some new emergency restrictions. What were the board's concerns?
They wanted to adopt some new ones that provide a greater protection from accidental ingesting and put some tighter restrictions on the appeal to youth. Also they had some significant concerns about consumer safety in terms of two things – first having the edibles be sold in obvious doses. If you have a chocolate bar, you want it to be really clear how many doses are in the chocolate bar.
And the second concern?
They wanted to ensure a consistent distribution of the THC throughout the product. ... They were hearing stories from Colorado suggesting that, for example, in some instances one half of the cookie might be more potent than the other.
A lot of consumer education needs to happen, especially when it comes to edibles, which we know even less about than we do about the flower form of marijuana. We want to make sure that consumers start slowly and be careful before trying this new product.
But there are other differences between Colorado, which started selling recreational marijuana in January, and Washington, which began selling legal party pot this week. What are they?
Here in Washington, we have a heavier tax burden than in Colorado. Some are making a greater deal of the tax burden. ... Really, what will drive price will be scarcity. Price and the stability of the retail market are going to be driven most significantly by the availability of supply. We have a 25% tax, with over 80% of the marijuana excise taxes dedicated to prevention, treatment, research and evaluation of the implementation of I-502. Whereas Colorado has dedicated a specific amount of money, the first $40 million [of its marijuana excise tax revenues] to school construction.
Doesn't Colorado have different regulations than Washington regarding who can sell recreational marijuana?
With Colorado, the only people who could obtain one of the Amendment 64 licenses were people previously licensed as medical marijuana dispensaries. The [recreational] market was limited to the medical marijuana industry. July 1 was the first day that Colorado began accepting license applications from people not previously licensed as a medical marijuana dispensary.
In Washington, we started from scratch [building the recreational pot industry] because we didn't have a highly regulated medical marijuana industry.
How much marijuana can you buy legally in one of the retail stores licensed by the state of Washington?
Legally, you can buy an ounce, or up to 16 ounces of infused solids - your baked goods - and up to 72 ounces of infused liquids, like juices, teas, sodas. Also added in the most recent legislative session is a new product, marijuana concentrate, anything with 60% THC. And you can only purchase 7 grams of that, products such as tinctures, hash oil.
Washington residents can smoke pot in their homes. But what can tourists do? They can't take it home, can they?
It's not a function of I-502, but of federal law and other state laws that don't let you take marijuana out of state. If you're from Texas and come to Washington and buy marijuana, you can consume it while you're in Washington. There's an infraction, a civil infraction, on public display, similar to the ban on drinking in public. And all the places you can't smoke tobacco, you can't smoke marijuana.
What do you want people to take away from Washington's efforts to legalize marijuana and create this new industry?
Remember that creating this legal and regulated marketplace is intended to establish an example of taking a public health-oriented approach to marijuana instead of continuing to leave marijuana in the black market. We want to encourage responsible use. We want to encourage parents to talk to their children about the increased risks to young people. And most of all we want to demonstrate that states do have the ability to create well-regulated systems for controlling the marijuana market.