The future of pot in Washington: State regulators talk marijuana ahead of 5-year anniversary of sales
SPOKANE — Nearly five years on, regulators of Washington state’s legal marijuana industry say there’s more work to be done on keeping pot out of the hands of children and assisting growers facing falling revenues due to a glut of product.
“We need to be well-positioned for an eventual national legalization, and what does that require,” said Jane Rushford, who chairs the three-member policy-making arm of the Liquor and Cannabis Board, in an interview Monday recorded for The Spokesman-Review’s Newsmakers podcast. “How do we get really smart about doing the things we can do now?”
Representatives of the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board will meet at Spokane City Hall on Wednesday to consider changes to rules governing the labeling and visual appeal of cannabis products, just one of many regulatory issues that have cropped up in the now multibillion dollar industry. That includes candies, cookies and other sweets that board members had originally considered to remove from shelves beginning in April, but producers and processors are now being given an additional year to comply with new rules that prohibit the sale of marijuana edibles that “are brightly colored” or look similar to products marketed toward children.
The board was initially prompted to act after complaints from “members of the public, folks in the prevention community,” said Rick Garza, agency director of the Liquor and Cannabis Board. Both he and Rushford acknowledged that state laws prohibit minors from entering retail marijuana stores. But passing the rule would limit exposure to the drug in the home, Rushford said.
“Any product that has THC, the adult consumer should protect youth and children from that,” she said, referring to the psychoactive element in marijuana. “If you look at a cookie, how does a child distinguish a marijuana-infused cookie from a regular, normal cookie? It becomes that full spectrum, of how do we take all the steps we can?”
Growers have been banding together to counter local air pollution regulations that took effect last year, arguing that the continued plummeting price of marijuana sold wholesale to processors and retailers is limiting their ability to cover the additional regulatory cost of doing business. In late December, industry analysts at Cannabis Benchmarks, an analytic firm based in Connecticut, reported wholesale prices had continued to tumble throughout 2018, raising “the question of where the market’s bottom might lie.”
Garza said the growing pains the industry is going through can be linked back to the same phenomenon that occurred in the 1970s when Washington’s wineries were beholden to distributors rather than being able to sell their product directly. State laws prohibit Washington’s marijuana producers from also holding a retail license in a process known as “vertical integration,” a holdover from state laws governing liquor production and sale after alcohol sales were banned in the United States in the early 20th century.
“That has created, probably if there was a fault in that initiative, was not allowing for the vertical integration,” Garza said.
Other states that have legalized the sale of marijuana, notably Colorado, have allowed marijuana producers and processors to also obtain retail licenses.
Another area where Washington differs from other states permitting cannabis sales is in the testing of flower for pesticides. At least one private retailer in Seattle has begun testing products on their shelves for prohibited substances, in the absence of a state law or rule mandating such tests. Washington-grown pot is tested for bacteria and other potentially contaminating substances.
Garza said the board would consider mandatory pesticide testing soon. The hold-up has been the absence of data to indicate what levels of certain substances are safe, as the drug’s classification as illegal under federal law has limited research opportunities.
“When you take action against a licensee for pesticide use, remember that you’re going to have to go to court, or you’re going to have to go before a judge, and you’re going to have to prove that these action levels that you’ve placed into rule are acceptable,” he said. “And how are you going to do that?”
The Liquor and Cannabis Board will hold its monthly meeting beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the lower level of Spokane City Hall, 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. The public will be allowed to speak during an open forum period at the end of the meeting, as well as weigh in on proposed changes to the state’s laws on vaping.
The entirety of the conversation can be heard at spokesman.com/podcasts.
Listen to “Washington State Liquor Cannabis Board Director Rick Garza and Chair Jane Rushford” on Spreaker.