Marijuana Notes: Strange new state job … cannabis quality control

Oct 3, 2012

KPLU reporters are looking into Washington's marijuana legalization initiative (I-502) to produce a series of stories that will separate facts from rumors and to learn exactly what would change if it’s approved. And on this page, we’re sharing some of the interesting facts as we learn them along the way.

Oct. 3 – If it's legal, you'll need some standards for the "quality" of the cannabis sold in state-licensed stores. But how will that be determined? 

Breaking it down

Do you like your maple syrup dark, as in Grade B? Or do you prefer the light amber Grade A? When you buy beef, do you go for Prime, Choice or Select?

The marijuana initiative requires the state of Washington to create a grading system for cannabis. Is it good stuff? Or low-grade? A blend? How much THC (the active ingredient that gets you high) is it packing?

In the language of Initiative-502, the state Liquor Control Board is charged with:

"(8) In consultation with the department of agriculture, establishing classes of marijuana, useable marijuana, and marijuana infused products according to grade, condition, cannabinoid profile, THC concentration, or other qualitative measurements deemed appropriate by the state liquor control board;" (p.21)

If the state's in the business of licensing cannabis growers, then just like apple growers and wheat farmers, they need to set standards. And, in this case, the state is also licensing the retail stores, where people will want to know not only how potent the product is, but a bit about the taste and purity.

How it's done now

Medical marijuana dispensaries are already offering something similar. They describe the quality and other attributes of marijuana they sell. There can be dozens of varieties. The descriptions often include details about the percentages of THC, CBD, indica and sativa.

And, the state liquor board will also have to regulate the marketing language that goes alongside one of these blends. For example, at Seattle dispensary Fusion, the description of one popular "sativa" strain sounds like this:

"White Russian is one of our favorite strains. The White Russian Strain of medical marijuana provides amazing relief from pain, anxiety, and migraines. It is incredibly high in THC and is a very cerebral experience. Has Uplifting, creative, relaxing medicinal effects. Our White Russian’s gardener has perfected the fertilization and growing process of the plant to help provide consistent and incredibly potent, crystal-filled marijuana."

Video: Medical marijuana "experts" discuss the question of grading marijuana:

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Sept. 26 – The price of marijuana is supposed to drop, if it’s legal and sold in state-licensed cannabis shops. Otherwise, the stores won’t undercut the black market. But will the new marijuana economy work out that way?

At KPLU, we don’t have a good way to survey the street value of a gram of marijuana. But, some state officials have been puzzling over this question.

Buried on page 27 of the official “fiscal note” that must accompany an initiative, the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) states:

“Assume $12 per gram. Medical marijuana dispensary prices on average range between $10 and $15 per gram with some premium products exceeding $15 per gram. Based on average retail mark-up practices, producer price is $3 per gram and processer price is $6 per gram. No price elasticity is assumed.”

OFM uses this retail price for estimating potential tax revenues from marijuana sold in stores (nearly $600 million a year).

Some medical marijuana dispensaries post their prices online, and it does seem to match this estimate. 

For example, “Fweedom Collective” in Ballard charges $13/gram for its “Ace of Spades” and “Afgoo Kush” cannabis. (For reference, a single puff of marijuana from a joint is about 1/20th of a gram, and a heavy user might consume more than 3 grams per day, according to the authors of the book, "Marijuana Legalization.")

Opponents of the initiative say the state stores will have trouble matching that price after all the new taxes, including a 25 percent sales tax, are included.

“It doesn’t pencil out,” says Steve Sarich of the “No on 502” campaign.

The price could conceivably go much lower or higher, depending on how difficult and expensive it is for growers. The risk of a federal crackdown would likely keep the cost of production up.

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Sept. 21: Sometimes, it can seem like marijuana is everywhere. We were wondering: How many cannabis-smokers and consumers are there currently in Washington?

It turns out, we have official estimates. The Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM) needed an estimate in order to fulfill its duty re. Initiative-502, which would legalize marijuana. They have to figure out the financial impact of any initiative.

They assume from federal surveys that there are nearly 363,000 “users” currently in Washington.

“Using the United States Department of Health and Human Service, Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2008-2009 data for Washington, prevalence of use was 17.18% for persons eighteen to twenty-five years of age and 5.57% for twenty-six years of age and older. Assuming Washington’s use of marijuana is increasing at the same rate as national use, estimated prevalence of use in CY 13 is 18.4% for persons eighteen to twenty-five years of age and 6.1% for twenty-six years of age and older. Applying those percentages to Washington’s estimated population in CY 2013, our assumption is an estimated 363,000 Washington users.” [Note: CY = calendar year] (p.26)

This seems to be the closest thing to a reliable estimate. But many researchers say it underestimates the number by 20-40%. That means there could be as many as 508,000 users.

Is that a lot?  At the high end, it would be about 7.4% of the state’s population. (Or, in the official estimate, one out of every 16 adults over age 25.)

It’s not a small number, but it’s definitely a minority. Most legalization experts say the number would go up, if we legalize, but maybe only by about 10%. Of course, there’s not much precedent, so estimates are estimates.

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Sept. 18: What can you get away with under current law, with all of its gray areas around medical cannabis?

Pot-infused snow cones at a medical marijuana event in Seattle got us wondering if marijuana isn't practically legal already.
Pot-infused snow cones at a medical marijuana event in Seattle got us wondering if marijuana isn't practically legal already.
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

An event from last weekend made us wonder. It felt a bit like the marijuana version of a beer garden, according to KPLU reporter Ashley Gross. Below is her report of the scene:

It was hard to mistake the scent in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood emanating from the "Medical Cannabis Cup," an event sponsored by the pro-marijuana publication, High Times.

It was touted as a competition for medical marijuana growers, to win awards for the best strains of marijuana, best edibles, etc. Your $50 admission fee also included two days of panel discussions on legalization, cultivation, and how to make your own edibles at home.

The surprises were in the “outdoor medicating section,” a fenced-off area where anyone with a valid medical marijuana prescription could sample from booths offering pot-infused products. An organizer of the event let me in so I could interview people. People were sitting in folding chairs, or walking around, smoking pipes and joints.

The variety was what floored me. Marijuana-infused cotton candy. Medicated snow cones. All manner of lollipops and candies and Rice Krispie treats.

But an outdoor pot-fest, even if it's only available to people who buy tickets and who have doctor's recommendations, seems to be pushing the envelope, legally.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is a sponsor of I-502, the legalization initiative. He spoke on a legalization panel at the Medical Cannabis Cup, but told me in an interview that he didn't know about the outdoor medicating area. He says the outdoor marijuana area sounds "inappropriate."

"To the extent they were distributing marijuana – a controlled substance – and using it there in public, that’s extremely risky behavior, and a DEA agent or an SPD officer would have been well within their rights to make a felony arrest," Holmes said.

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Sept. 17: We learned Washington will get three new kinds of businesses – pot growers, pot processors and pot retailers.

If it's legal - lots of things in our lives here in Washington will change.
If it's legal - lots of things in our lives here in Washington will change.
Credit Morgan / Flickr

Nearly half the pages in the initiative are given to the details of growing and selling marijuana through new state-licensed businesses. We thought the definitions of these new businesses were interesting, just by themselves:

"Marijuana processor" means a person licensed by the state liquor control board to process marijuana into useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products. The "pot processor" would package and label useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products for sale in retail outlets and sell useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products at wholesale to marijuana retailers.

"Marijuana producer" means a person licensed by the state liquor control board to produce and sell marijuana at wholesale to marijuana processors and other marijuana producers.

"Marijuana-infused products" means products that contain marijuana or marijuana extracts and are intended for human use. The term "marijuana-infused products" does not include useable marijuana.

"Marijuana retailer" means a person licensed by the state liquor control board to sell useable marijuana and marijuana-infused products in a retail outlet.

And, this phrase seems to be key to understanding all of the above:

"Useable marijuana" means dried marijuana flowers. The term "useable marijuana" does not include marijuana-infused products.

Perhaps the strangest item, to any non-pot-user, is "marijuana-infused products" – a whole lot of marijuana items that are not just leaves and flowers. We'll definitely keep checking-out how these infused products will affect our lives.

This is all on Page 6 of the full-text document.

Check back for more marijuana legalization facts and fictions as we learn them.

The stories themselves will appear here and air on KPLU during Morning Edition and All Things Considered during the week of Oct. 8. KPLU's science reporter and assistant news director Keith Seinfeld is editing this series.  

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