Washington state's first recreational marijuana stores open for business this week, more than a year and a half after voters decided to legalize, tax and regulate pot. Some questions and answers about the industry:
Q: When can I buy legal weed?
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A: The state's Liquor Control Board plans to issue the first 15 to 20 retail marijuana licenses on Monday, and stores can open at 8 a.m. Tuesday if they're ready — but they might not have any cannabis on the shelves right away. Once stores get their licenses, they can place their orders with the state's licensed growers, who have to wait 24 hours before they ship the marijuana, and there's travel time to account for, too. But two licensed growers and a hopeful retailer said Sunday that they expected the licenses to be issued electronically at 1 a.m. Monday. If all goes according to plan, that should leave time for product to be available in at least some stores by Tuesday morning.
Q: Where can I buy legal weed?
A: The board hasn't identified the stores that will get their licenses Monday, but some of the shops have told reporters they've paid their fees, passed their inspections and are ready for their golden tickets. The board said a few stores were prepared in Spokane, Tacoma, Bellingham and Vancouver, but only one is expected to open in Seattle.
Q: Will it be expensive?
A: Yes. Although some stores say they plan to sell some of their supply for as little as $12 a gram — comparable to what it sells for at the state's unregulated medical dispensaries — others expect it to go for $25 or more. The issue is mainly supply. Relatively few growers have harvested — the pot being offered for sale in the coming days was grown by only about a dozen producers statewide. According to the two labs certified to check the pot for mold and other impurities, the samples they had tested by last Thursday represent a maximum initial statewide harvest of about 440 pounds.
Some growers are asking $4,000 per pound wholesale. The marijuana is heavily taxed — 25 percent at wholesale and 25 percent at retail, at least, not to mention additional sales taxes. Officials don't expect prices to stabilize until after many more growers begin harvesting.
Q: How much can I buy?
A: State law allows the sale of up to an ounce of dried marijuana, 16 ounces of pot-infused solids, 72 ounces of pot-infused liquids or 7 grams of concentrated marijuana, like hashish, to adults over 21, whether you're a Washington resident or not. But there isn't expected to be any infused food or drink available right away: As of last week, the Liquor Control Board had not issued any licenses to processors of those products, or approved any edibles for sale. Some stores are talking about limiting customers to one 2-gram package apiece to make sure there's enough for everyone to buy some.
Q: What took so long to get the stores open?
A: Colorado already had a regulated medical marijuana system, making for a smoother transition when it allowed those dispensaries to start selling to recreational pot shops on Jan. 1. Washington's medical system is unregulated, so officials here were starting from scratch as they immersed themselves in the pot world and tried to come up with regulations that made sense for the industry and the public. The regulations include protocols for testing marijuana, what types of edibles should be allowed, requirements for child-resistant packaging, how much criminal history is too much to get a license, and what types of security systems pot shops and growers should have.
Ultimately, though, much of the delays can be attributed to overwhelming interest: The liquor board received nearly 7,000 applications from people who wanted to grow, process or sell marijuana. Each of them needs to be vetted, with criminal and financial background checks, reviews to ensure they're not too close to a school or daycare, and approval of their business and security plans. It's time consuming work, and the board's 18 licensing investigators have been swamped.
Q: Where does the tax money go, and who's paying for programs to prevent problems?
A: The measure voters passed in 2012 directs some marijuana tax revenue to the state Health Department for public health programs. But tax revenue hasn't come in yet. With sales about to start, the department scraped together $400,000 for a new radio and online advertisement campaign urging parents to talk to their kids about marijuana and visit www.learnaboutmarijuanawa.org .