Washington state approves rules for taxed marijuana sales

The state of 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.

Washington and Colorado legalized pot possession of up to one ounce last year, taxed sales to begin in 2014

Tax revenue, estimated to be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, from the sale of recreational pot has been earmarked for drug abuse prevention and public health programs in Washington state. (Jason Redmond /Reuters)

The state of 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 are already 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, Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who drafted Washington's marijuana initiative, said.

Washington will tax pot highly and cap total production in the state at 80 tonnes.

"We feel very proud of what we're doing," Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the Washington Liquor Control Board, said. 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 (28.35 grams) 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 U.S. federal law for more than seven decades.

Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who drafted Washington state's legal marijuana law, and Randy Simmons, who oversees implementation of the law for the Liquor Control Board, smile after the three-member board approved rules for the state's new marijuana industry on Wednesday. (Rachel La Corte/Reuters)

Sales are expected to begin by the middle of next year, with supporters hoping taxed pot will bring the state tens or even 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 will also allow stores to sell both recreational and medical marijuana. Both states will require such measures as seed-to-store tracking, background checks for licence applicants, and child-resistant packaging.

Washington liquor board members said they tried to strike a balance between making 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 a quarter of the total pot market in the state, for starters.

Under the rules, the board will issue licences 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 are already operating there.

Washington's rules take effect in one month and the state plans to begin accepting licence 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. Marijuana also must be placed in opaque, child-resistant containers before being taken out of a store, and 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.

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