Washington state approves rules for pot industry

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By GENE JOHNSON, Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) — Washington adopted rules Wednesday for the recreational sale of marijuana, creating what advocates hope will be a template for the drug's legalization around the world.

Mexico, Uruguay, Poland and other countries and states already are reviewing the new regulations, which cover everything from the security at and size of licensed marijuana gardens, to how many pot stores can open in cities across the state, said Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who drafted Washington's marijuana initiative.

Washington will tax pot highly and cap total production in the state at 80 metric tons. Sales are expected to begin by the middle of next year.

"We feel very proud of what we're doing," said Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the Washington Liquor Control Board, as she and her two colleagues approved the rules. "We are making history."

Washington and Colorado last year legalized the possession of up to an ounce of pot by adults over 21, with voters deciding to set up systems of state-licensed growers, processors and sellers. The measures put state officials in the difficult position of crafting rules for a fledgling industry barred by federal law for more than seven decades.

The board devised Washington's regulations after nearly a year of research, debate and planning, including public hearings that drew hundreds of people around the state.

Supporters hope taxed pot will bring the state tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, with much of the revenue directed to public health and drug-abuse prevention.

Colorado approved its pot industry rules last month, and sales are expected to start in some cities there at the beginning of 2014.

The two states' laws are largely similar, although Colorado voters are considering whether to tax marijuana at a much lower rate, with no limit on total production.

Colorado also will let stores sell both recreational and medical marijuana. Both states will require such measures as seed-to-store tracking, background checks for license applicants, and child-resistant packaging.

Washington liquor board members said they tried to make marijuana accessible enough that legal pot would undermine the black market, but not so accessible that it would threaten public health or safety. The board hopes the sale of legal marijuana will capture about one-quarter of the state's total pot market, for starters.

Under the rules, the board will issue licenses for up to 334 marijuana stores across the state, with 21 of them in Seattle — a figure some have questioned as too low, considering the city estimates about 200 medical marijuana dispensaries already are operating there. The City Council has passed zoning regulations for pot businesses that would require medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain a state license or stop doing business by 2015.

The rules limit the number of licenses that anyone can hold to three — an attempt by the board to stamp out any monopolies before they start. They also prohibit out-of-state investment in pot businesses and require quality-control testing of marijuana by third-party labs.

Hilary Bricken, a Seattle lawyer who is advising businesses that hope to obtain marijuana licenses, said her clients largely are content with the regulations, though some are disappointed by the three-license max and the ban on out-of-state money.

"It's a huge undertaking, and the board has been extremely fair," she said.

Washington's rules take effect in one month, and the state plans to begin accepting license applications Nov. 18.

Under Colorado's rules, businesses must use a state-run online inventory tracking program to document the plant's journey from seed to sale. Recreational pot stores won't be allowed to advertise to people under 21.

Marijuana shops are set to open in Colorado in January but only in a handful of cities that have voted to allow them, including Denver.

The federal government announced earlier this year that it would not sue states over plans to tax and regulate marijuana sales for adults over 21, provided they address eight federal law enforcement priorities, including keeping pot off the black market and away from kids.

Washington's legal marijuana law includes zoning requirements keeping the businesses away from schools, parks and playgrounds.

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Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle

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