In Our View: Marijuana Experiment

While questions need to be sorted out, state moves ahead with sensible law

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Washington's foray into legalized marijuana is a vast experiment in social norms, business opportunities, and state regulation of an industry.

When 56 percent of voters said "yes" to Initiative 502 a year ago, approving home use of the drug by adults, they generated a labyrinth of questions that still are being navigated by the Washington State Liquor Control board. So, when the board held a workshop recently in Vancouver for prospective marijuana producers and processors, it was not surprising to see that much concern remains over how the system will work. But, as Columbian reporter Sue Vorenberg wrote, "Fear of stigma seems to be slowly giving way to larger business concerns."

Such is the way of capitalism. If there is money to be made, there will be entrepreneurs trying to make it. And that's OK. While marijuana retains a stigma -- consider that Washington and Colorado are the only states that have legalized the drug for recreational use -- the fact is that voters in this state voted for it by a large margin. In addition, polls across the nation suggest that other states soon will approve legalization, an acknowledgement that anti-marijuana enforcement has been a costly and losing proposition for decades.

That is the part that falls under the category of social norms. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, a total of $211 million was spent in the state from 2000-2010 enforcing marijuana laws, and the effectiveness of such efforts is a source of much debate.

Yet while the social aspect of legalized marijuana appears to be headed in the direction of increased approval, the business aspect has been more problematic for state regulators. Clark County has been approved for 15 retail outlets, and licenses will be determined by a lottery if there is an excess of applications. In Pierce County, which has been approved for 31 retail outlets, a majority of the county council is reluctant to designate locations for the stores. As The News Tribune wrote, councilors "don't want to put their good housekeeping seal of approval on a psychoactive drug that remains illegal under federal law." Other jurisdictions in the state also are reluctant to give tacit approval to the law.

That is where the regulation aspect comes into play, and it is the most important aspect of the entire endeavor. State officials have developed a system with the goal of tracking marijuana from "seed to store"; they have developed rules preventing operations within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, game arcades and other places where children and teens congregate; and they have placed limits on advertising with the goal of inhibiting marijuana use by those younger than 21.

No system is perfect, but diligent enforcement of these limitations will be crucial in making Washington's vast experiment a success while limiting the damage that can be caused by legalization. Allowing adults to engage in an activity within their own homes is much different from the state sanctioning that behavior in public or among minors.

Despite all that, the primary problem that appears unsolvable is the danger of Washington becoming the marijuana supplier for the nation. There's little that can be done to prevent buyers from purchasing drugs for sale in another state, although such people will be subject to laws and enforcement in those states.

So, while questions remain to be sorted out, Washington moves forward with a sensible law. Said Chris, who was quoted in The Columbian story by Vorenberg but didn't want his last name used: "It's a brave new world. It will be interesting to see how the market shakes out."