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Washington state’s debate on cannabis has only just begun

While Colorado has plowed ahead in building a taxed and regulated marijuana industry, the state of Washington has been more deliberate. It will be a few months yet before the first retail outlets selling cannabis are open to the public.

It's not surprising, given the many questions the state has had to consider since residents voted in favour of legalization in a referendum in November, 2012. Among them has been the question of demand: How much marijuana should the state produce for sale?

Grow too much and you have an oversupply that may end up in the hands of those living in nearby states. Too little supply, meantime, could bring into play the black-market suppliers the state is trying to put out of business.

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What state bureaucrats discovered is that trying to quantify how much pot the average user in the state consumes in a year is difficult. It's not like people are ready to divulge that information to any old pollster who phones their house. That said, according to the latest study released by RAND Corp., the roughly 750,000 users in Washington state will have consumed anywhere between 135 and 225 metric tonnes in 2013.

That far exceeds the state's initial consumption estimates. Still, it does not intend to deviate from its plan to produce about 80 metric tonnes of marijuana and extracts for sale annually in a bid to capture more of the market. It will ramp up production as the system grows.

Along with the matter of how much marijuana the state should produce has been the issue of what form the final product should take.

When most people of a certain age think of pot, they picture a joint. But what Washington marijuana officials discovered is that the marijuana cigarette is losing popularity, especially with the young who are increasingly favouring edibles and concentrates such as hash oil. So when the system gets up and going in the spring, it's anticipated that consumers will purchase roughly 40 metric tonnes of buds and flowers and another 40 metric tonnes of extracts such as cookies and bars, liquids and topicals (applied to the skin) as well as oils.

And what about the stores themselves? Where should they be located? The law approved by voters mandated that there be a 304-metre buffer between any marijuana outlet and venues frequented by young people, including schools and parks. However, the state liquor board, which is overseeing the marijuana rollout, changed the way that distance is calculated. It decided to use the most "common path," between a pot facility and youth venue rather than a straight-line measurement.

This move opened up new territory for erstwhile pot retailers.

Most stores are being located based on population and accessibility, a system similar to the one used for state liquor stores that are now defunct. About 20 are expected to open in Seattle alone.

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One of the aspects of legalization in Washington and Colorado to keep an eye on is around driving while intoxicated. Washington has opted for a fairly straightforward measure on this front: If you're stopped for driving erratically and your blood contains five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC – the mind-altering ingredient found in marijuana), you will be arrested for driving under the influence.

This is surely going to be fertile ground for lawyers. At this point, scientists are far from confident in terms of predicting how the hallucinogenic components in marijuana affect different users. Consequently, the threshold that Washington has settled on – five nanograms of THC – is, in some respects, arbitrary.

There is already opposition forming. According to a recent article in The New Yorker, the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization promoting reform of the U.S.'s cannabis laws, is suggesting that the THC test criminalizes sober drivers. Meantime, there are other groups such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse arguing the five-nanogram baseline is too tolerant and that impairment is possible at levels below that.

What is widely agreed, however, is that much more research needs to be conducted on how marijuana affects people generally.

It's safe to say there are people on both sides of the marijuana argument with much at stake in terms of what's happening in the two U.S. states. Any problem will be pounced on by those who think legalization signals the end of the American empire as we know it. Any success will be hailed by proponents as a victory for evolution and common sense.

There is certain to be fodder for both sides.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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