Passage of Initiative 502 last November created this irony: A 78-year-old state agency is trying to figure out how to do its job.
Odd as that might seem, it's because the Washington Liquor Control Board is making an unprecedented venture into the regulation of marijuana. The board must decide in coming months how the state will grow, process, sell and regulate marijuana.Our hope is that this journey will be smooth. Our expectation is that it will be filled with fits and starts, but ultimately will justify the wisdom of last November's voters. That long-term vision -- plus the fact that marijuana prohibition has been a miserable failure in multiple ways -- is why The Columbian endorsed I-502, which was approved by 55.7 percent of voters.
The LCB is taking its act on the road. One of several public forums in a statewide series on the implementation of Initiative 502 is scheduled from 6 to 10 p.m. on Feb. 7 at Clark College's Foster Auditorium. Citizens are invited to offer suggestions on how the state can move pot from seed to sale.
Clearly, the pressure is on, and adding to the difficulty of this task are five unique challenges:
• There is no example to follow. (No state has ever done this.)
• Federal law prohibits what Washington is doing, although federal officials have yet to say if they will challenge the state.
• Other states are watching closely -- holding Washington officials accountable -- as they consider following our state down this road.
• Vendors are champing at the bit, poised to chase lucrative state contracts.
• Numerous stakeholders in revenue-starved state agencies wait anxiously to see how much tax revenue can be generated by this endeavor.
Generally, we believe government regulation should be minimized when possible, but in this case, conventional wisdom is persuasive: Many informed observers believe the more heavily the Liquor Control Board regulates marijuana, the more likely the U.S. Justice Department will be to take a hands-off approach. At least temporarily, federal officials could decide to see how the Washington (and Colorado) experiments play out, and refrain from legal intervention.
One of the LCB's biggest challenges will be to project consumption of marijuana in the state. Although only an estimate, this will be important, because state officials want to avoid a surplus of pot that could be transported beyond state boundaries. And then, that projection must be extrapolated into allowables for growers and distributors.
Projections must be flexible. So, too, must other factors, such as license fees for growers and retailers. If the market supports doubling or tripling those fees -- for example -- then adjustments should be relatively easy to make, if for no other reason than to increase revenue, which would relieve the burden on other taxpayers.
Washington and Colorado are trailblazers in legalizing marijuana use. Let's hope the wagons don't get bogged down in the mud of bureaucratic and legal complexities.