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Originally published Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Weed won’t make state a lot of money, consultant says

Washington state’s new pot consultant warned that tax revenues from recreational weed may not be as much as projected, and may come with undesirable consequences.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Washington’s new pot consultant has one overarching, discouraging message for lawmakers and state budget writers: Don’t look at weed as an ATM.

Potential tax revenue will probably be less than half of the $450 million the state has projected as a maximum return, said Dr. Mark Kleiman, in an interview with TVW’s Austin Jenkins.

More important, Kleiman said, to rely on money from pot — like money from gambling, alcohol and tobacco — means relying on abuse and addiction, which are not necessarily desirable state goals.

“The brute fact,” said Kleiman, a UCLA drug-policy expert, is that those activities depend on heavy use by a few, not moderate use by many. Just 20 percent of users consume 80 percent of all the weed in the U.S., Kleiman said. (Forty-six percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. is part of drinking binges, he added).

“The only way to get a lot of revenue is to sell a lot of marijuana,” he said. “The only way to sell a lot or marijuana is to sell to people who smoke a lot of marijuana. And that’s not a good thing.” Policymakers may not want the state “fostering disease,” he said.

But Kleiman stressed that he is not the state’s drug czar and is not here to argue legalization. “We weren’t asked if this was good idea. We were asked to help the (liquor control) board implement a law that had been passed,” he said.

In doing so, Kleiman suggested one coming disappointment: State-licensed pot stores probably won’t open until late spring, although the state may meet its goal of implementing rules for a recreational pot system by December.

The trickiest part, Kleiman said, probably will be setting prices.

There are many tangled priorities implicit in pricing. Higher prices mean less use, but also less revenue, and a stronger black market. Lower prices could cripple the black market but increase youth use and adult abuse, as well as illegal exports.

As an academic and Californian, Kleiman said, he was glad to see this grand experiment unfold in Washington not California. He said he has been impressed by the smarts and morale of state officials. “We’re obviously pleased that drug policy that doesn’t take an ideological edge is in demand,” he said of winning the state’s consulting contract. “It hasn’t been.”

And he stressed that this remains a state experiment that could be challenged at any time by a federal government that views marijuana as a dangerous drug.

“We’re only trying to cause a legal market because the federal government is in the background.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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