In Defense of the Washington Liquor Control Board’s Handling of Marijuana Implementation
The start of the recreational marijuana industry in Washington State has been much delayed and a bit rocky, but any criticism of how the Washington State Liquor Control Board handled implementing the law so far should acknowledge what an unenviable task the agency was assigned.
Creating the regulatory structure for any entirely new industry is in itself a huge job. Unlike Colorado, Washington didn’t have a well regulated medical marijuana industry it could simply expand. And importantly, this already complex task was made exponentially more difficult due to the fact that marijuana is still a Schedule I drug under federal law.
To deal with this thorny federal/state conflict, the WSLCB had mainly vague guidance from the Obama administration, whose past behavior towards state marijuana programs can be described as schizophrenic. This is, after all, the same administration that early on promised to take a hands-off approach towards medical marijuana, then only a few years ago threatened to possibly go after the state regulators in Washington that would have been tasked with implementing new regulations for medical marijuana. You can’t fault Washington State regulators for wanting to be very cautious given this history.
We need to keep in mind what the situation was like when the WSLCB began putting everything in motion. Having at least something up and running as a proof of concept was seen as critical in 2012-2013. Most supporters of marijuana reform acknowledged that a small, delayed and overly-restricted legal marijuana market that was allowed to exist was preferable to a “better” system that might be immediately shut down by federal agents.
Now that we see the implementation has gone well in Colorado, with few problems and little federal interference, it is easy conclude WSLCB was probably overly cautious, but hindsight is always 20/20. If the unpredictable Obama administration had responded differently to Colorado, we might view the WSLCB differently.
This doesn’t mean I agreed with all of the WSLCB decisions; in fact, I’ve even publicly filed comments against some of their proposed rules, but everyone involved in the issue should acknowledge they had an uniquely tough job due to so many unknowns.
Now that we have some real data and experience to draw from, I think it is also fair to expect things to go more smoothly with state regulation in Washington and elsewhere in the future.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy