How will marijuana products be sold, and will they be safe?

Oct 9, 2012

If Washington voters approve a ballot measure this fall legalizing marijuana, it would bring big changes – not just in the justice system, but in our communities. In our series “If it’s legal: Five ways legal pot could affect your life,” we consider some ways things could change for all of us, even people who never smoke pot. Today we look at the industry for making, selling and regulating marijuana products that will spring up … if it’s legal.

The closest thing to a legal marijuana store right now is a so-called medical marijuana dispensary. They’re all over Seattle. Tacoma has a few as well. And you can go see what kind of products they have.

You just ring the doorbell outside a forest green storefront and you’ll be greeted warmly. At least, that’s what happened to me one recent morning, at the Center for Palliative Care in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. It’s called “the CPC” for short.

It’s a shop with a good reputation as an alternative to scary encounters with underground drug dealers. Co-founder Jeremy Kaufman says they're committed to the long-term goal of getting pot legalized nationally.

“Anybody who’s above board now, they’re changing the experience of what has been something mostly horrific, for everybody, to something better, “ he says.

His eyes are a little narrow, his hair is long. He looks like a surfer and the second-hand décor in this place matches his style. There are acrylic paintings of beach scenes, with palm trees and sunsets.

On a marijuana tour

I follow him through a brightly lit waiting room into what looks like an office, with a big desk and shelves full of marijuana products you may not even know exist. They’re all designed as alternative painkillers, he says.

“If you look at those products, they’re all dose-able, they’re all quantifiable,” he says, rambling on in a kind of poetry-slam sounding rap to tell me they sell four types of products that they make, on the premises.

Kaufman says he's used them to recover from a bad skiing accident that traumatized him when he was 19. He says he was drunk, blacked out and broke his back. And then was so angry when he found out what happened, that he had to be strapped down.

Ingestible pot became his salvation after he realized he was addicted to narcotic pain pills. Now he's mellow and seems at home in himself – happy.

In the new legal stores – you'd still find many varieties of the cannabis plant, but there'd be more to choose from than just the plant.
In the new legal stores – you'd still find many varieties of the cannabis plant, but there'd be more to choose from than just the plant.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

4 Ways to get high; new paraphernalia

It’s not just what you might expect: flower buds, for smoking.

He explains there are also 3 other ways to get high: 

  • using topical creams on your skin,
  • in oily drops that go under your tongue
  • food products,such as pot brownies.

All deliver the active ingredient in cannabis, THC.

“If you apply it topically, it’s non-psychoactive and it’s acute. If you take it in combustibly, it’s instant acting, shortest in duration, but highest arcing as far as the mental activity with the compounds that are involved,” Kaufman says.

He’s standing near a small fridge full of pot-laced foods, hash caramels and gummy candies. He says ingestibles deliver the longest-acting high. There are spice jars full of succulent-looking buds, with names like: Maui Wowie, Thai Cinderella  and Silver Surfer.

Also for sale are colorful glass bongs and tiny hash oil vaporizers that do less harm to smokers’ lungs.He displays one they call The Magic Flight Launch Box.

“This is $110. And this is vaporization of flower plant only. So it’s very small,” about half the size of a business card, about ¾ of an inch thick.

So, is this range of products what we could see in a legal state-run pot store?

Grandmom as regulator

“WOW.  I don’t have a clue,” says Sharon Foster, very interested in the pictures I show her after I toured the dispensary. She’s the chair of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which will be the nation’s pioneering policy maker for legalized marijuana, if I-502 passes.

The board was created 78 years ago, after prohibition ended in the U.S. 

And lately, it’s been closing liquor stores and watching over initiative-driven privatization of alcohol sales.

“We’ve been regulators and enforcers for a long, long time, so that’s what we would be, Foster says. If the Initiative passes. We would regulate and enforce; we would promulgate the rules. And we have great experience in that. And obviously, we would call in experts, wherever we could find them. ”

She admits she’s still learning about the effects of marijuana – and all kinds of groups using it.

She finds it funny to read that many seniors are reaching for pot to ease the aches and pains of aging. But also a little scary that some pot-laced products look like tootsie rolls that could be attractive to young people.

Edibles are a staple of the marijuana market. They will be at the forefront of the new legal marijuana market (if it's legal ...).
Edibles are a staple of the marijuana market. They will be at the forefront of the new legal marijuana market (if it's legal ...).
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Background checks for licensees

Pausing for a photo over a cup of coffee, she says her agency would do everything in their power to make sure there’s no criminal element in state stores.  She says dispensary owners should expect new regulations.

“We certainly wouldn’t let them just flip their sign. And it probably wouldn’t be much different than how we license somebody that’s applying for a liquor license.

There would be strict screening – with criminal background checks.

“Fingerprint checks, and we would probably, as with the liquor license, set up a point system and if you reach a certain point system, you are denied.”

The Liquor Board would also be in charge of deciding where the stores would go – and how many there would be – to keep people and children safe, while providing what the initiative calls “an adequate supply.”

Getting back to the comparison with alcohol … consider that there were 21 state liquor stores in Seattle before privatization. And about 320 state liquor stores, statewide.

Foster says she’s not worried about them getting that equation right.

“We know how to do that. And we know how to do it well.”

Putting pot stores on the map

What that really means is: Not making people who feel they need pot drive too far.

The locations of former state-run liquor stores in Washington. Under the new law, stores would be set up around the state to sell marijuana.
The locations of former state-run liquor stores in Washington. Under the new law, stores would be set up around the state to sell marijuana.

One challenge? Some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry have been breaking the law for decades.

And the irony here is that though they intend to prevent anyone with a bad criminal record from getting a license, many of the people who know the most about the industry have been breaking the law for decades.

"I’m very excited to be talking about this finally, after living this kind of lifestyle for the last 40 years. When someone asks you what you do and you either have to just change the subject or lie," says Jeff Gilmore.

Gilmore says he has been quietly growing pot and earning lots of money at it since about 1977, when a down economy got him into the business.

Right now, he says the 45 medical marijuana plants he’s allowed aren’t enough to make a living, even though that’s five times as much pot as he used to grow. He says prices have tanked, because of all the new dispensaries in the market.

A new craft industry

He likes the idea that Washington could create thousands of legit jobs, while become known as a boutique producer in a whole new realm, kind of like craft distilleries or microbrews.

“Why not let Washington be world-known for growing high-quality marijuana?” he asks, clearly delighted with the idea. “Just the way Tennessee is known for making good bourbon.”

But if pot becomes legal in Washington, the initiative says you could only consume it in private.  

And still unknown is how federal government officials would react to our state’s pioneering step into a new realm of drug policy.