State’s retail pot gets rolling Tuesday
What can you buy in legal pot stores? How much will it cost? Can you sample products? You have questions. We have answers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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It’s been 20 months, or some 600 days, since Washington voters legalized weed, and the first wave of retail pot stores is finally poised to open Tuesday. In the meantime, Seattle elected a legally married gay mayor, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl and the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge collapsed.
It’s been so long since we voted for Initiative 502 that the details aren’t easy to recall.
And there were details. The initiative was 65 pages long. It specified where pot commerce couldn’t occur and the precise amounts of bud and brownies adults could possess. It earmarked taxes and set license fees.
But I-502 still had to be translated into practical rules, a task voters handed to the state Liquor Control Board (LCB). Steeped in regulating whiskey and vodka, the agency faced a steep learning curve. And, for nearly a year, no one in the state knew if the grand experiment would be brought to an abrupt halt by federal authority in Washington, D.C.
Most of the action since the historic vote on Nov. 6, 2012, has been in creating the architecture of a legal pot system and dealing with who-would’ve-imagined questions, such as how to regulate super-potent and chemically volatile new breeds of hash oil.
Q: What took so long?
A: The short version: The state created something untested on the planet. (No, not even Amsterdam regulates commercial production as Washington does.) It did this looking over its shoulder at the feds and their prohibition of all marijuana. It did this by bringing outlaws, profiteers and opportunists into legal commerce with strict rules and stiff taxes. It did this with public input and a relatively open process. And it did this being mindful of the impact on children.
Q: Those sound like excuses. Didn’t Colorado legalize pot at the same time and open stores on Jan. 1?
A: Colorado opened a few stores on New Year’s Day, with long lines and scarce supply, and we’ll have that here, too, despite the wait. The chief reason that state was first? It already had a regulated medical-marijuana industry in place. And that’s who got the first recreational store licenses — entrepreneurs with established medical-marijuana businesses in good standing with state regulators. Washington’s medical marijuana is largely unregulated, so the state had to build its regulatory system.
Q: But didn’t state officials bungle implementation?
A: The state didn’t even know until Aug. 29 last year that the feds would allow the experiments in Colorado and Washington to go forward. The state window for taking business applications lasted a month, until Dec. 19. The state’s 20 investigators were then swamped with vetting more than 7,000 license applications — many of which were ill-prepared. Some prospectors were trying to stake a claim just because they could. Some applied for the wrong kind of licenses. Some applied at improper locations. Some changed their paperwork. And, yes, state rules and procedures changed during the course of evaluating applications.
Q: OK, what are stores going to be like?
A: State officials hope they’re vague on the outside, vogue on the inside. Stores are allowed a single outdoor sign, a little bigger than 3 feet by 3 feet. Products can’t be visible from the street or sidewalk. In-store advertising is strictly limited. Security cameras are required. Some stores might have TVs and sofas for waiting customers. Products are likely to be kept in something like jewelry display cases. Stores can sell only pot-related products. No, that doesn’t include Cheetos.
Q: How many stores will there be, and where?
A: The first wave of stores opening Tuesday might be just a handful or a couple dozen. It depends on how many are ready for the state’s final inspection and have contracted with growers to have supply. Only one store is poised to open in Seattle. State officials plan to eventually license 334 stores, but that number might drop to 305 because no one applied to sell pot in 29 locations the LCB had allotted licenses. Seattle was allotted 21 stores.
Stores can’t be near a lot of things — schools, parks, libraries — so they’re allowed only in certain parts of cities. Sodo, which is emerging as Seattle’s pot district, is an example.
Q: Can I bring family members if they’re not buying?
A: There are no rules prohibiting that. But you must be 21 or older to enter a store. No exceptions.
Q: How about friends from out of state?
A: The rules don’t treat tourists differently from Washington residents.
Q: What can I buy?
A: Legally, you can buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana. But because few stores will be open Tuesday and few producers will have harvested crops, expect supply to be scarce and rationed at first. The first store poised to open in Seattle will have just 10 pounds on hand and plans to sell packages limited to 2 grams in weight. A store in Bellingham will have 1-gram packages. Rules also allow you to buy 7 grams (one-quarter ounce) of concentrates or extracts such as hash oil.
Q: Should I bring my own container?
A: No, all products must be packaged and labeled before they are displayed and sold. You can’t select loose buds from jars, like in medical dispensaries or in Colorado stores.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: Retail prices are set by the private market, so expect prices to be high at first because of the short supply. The entrepreneur likely to open Seattle’s first store said he wants to price grams at $15 to $20 each. That’s out-the-door, with excise and sales tax included. Good pot sells in Seattle medical-marijuana dispensaries for about $10 to $12 per gram, whether the dispensaries pay sales tax or not. A prominent illegal delivery service in Seattle sells for roughly $9 to $17 per gram.
Q: Will the state track my pot purchases?
A: Proof of age will be required for your purchases, but state officials say they will not track your activities.
Q: What are store hours?
A: Stores can open as early as 8 a.m. and stay open until midnight, seven days a week. But it’s up to each store to determine its hours within that range.
Q: Will the stores offer good quality?
A: You can’t just package pot pulled out of the soil yesterday. We’ll find out if the first batches are well-grown and cured. One assurance we will have: Pot must be tested by accredited labs and certified as safe from impurities like mold.
Q: Can I buy pot-infused edibles?
Not at first. Because of increasing concerns in Colorado about the uniformity, dosing and safety of edible products, Washington state regulators hit the brakes on edibles. Rules had been approved to allow edibles, in child-resistant packaging, with warnings about the delayed effect of edibles, and recommended doses of 10 milligrams of THC per serving. But state officials are revisiting the rules. They want to make sure recommended servings can be separated from a whole edible — not easy when dealing with a cookie, or friable product. They want to make sure psychoactive chemicals are spread evenly through an edible. And they want to make edibles meet food-safety standards in preparation. As it stands, state officials want to approve all products before they go on shelves.
Q: Can I sample products in stores?
A: Not in the way you’re probably hoping. You can’t consume in stores. You can’t touch pot in stores. You can see and smell samples, but under state rules they can be presented only in certain sniffable containers.
Q: Can I buy plants?
A: No. Unlike Colorado, our system does not allow home growing.
Q: OK, where can I consume my small amount of expensive pot?
A: You can’t consume in “view of the general public.” So no to parks or sidewalks or sporting events. You can consume in your home, but if you’re a renter your landlord may prohibit the good times. Tourists face challenges, something Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes aims to address. In a letter to the Liquor Control Board, Holmes called for the LCB to study “private-use clubs or similar accommodations.” Holmes will propose a solution later this year that would allow people to consume edibles and vaporize pot at marijuana cafes open to the public.
Q: I have more questions not related to stores, about potency, newfangled devices for consuming, and health risks. Where do I turn for answers?
A: We tried to answer a bunch of questions, plan on answering more, and look forward to questions we hadn’t anticipated at blogs.seattletimes.com/pot/.
Seattle Times social media editor Evan Bush contributed to this report.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @potreporter