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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

For Regulators, Marijuana Legalization All About 'Getting Into The Weeds'

SEATTLE – When Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana last fall, they handed the state’s Liquor Control Board a regulatory nightmare. There’s no manual for how to create a safe and legal market for pot – something that’s never been done before.

State Representative Roger Goodman – speaking after a recent meeting on marijuana legalization – says the giggle factor is gone.

“Initiative 502 largely is about making marijuana boring. Because who cares about all this detail, technical, regulatory stuff," he said. "Well that’s what it’s all about is to get down into the weeds so to speak.”

No pun intended.

Inside a secret location in the Georgetown neighborhood of south Seattle, Brent Miller shows off a dark room. It’s called a "bloom room" full of maturing marijuana plants.

“This is just when they’re asleep," Miller says. "We run them 12 hours on 12 hour off.

Twelve hours of daylight – under thousand watt grow lights – followed by 12 hours of nighttime – for eight to nine weeks until the buds are ready to harvest. Miller grows pot for a large medical marijuana cooperative in the Seattle area. He’s invited a group of representatives from the Washington Liquor Control Board to see his operation. Among them: Mike Steenhout a former state budget analyst.

Steenhout heads the Liquor Board’s research team. His full-time job these days is to learn the marijuana business – from seed to market – inside and out. He wanted to come here to see how they grow healthy plants.

He peppers grower Brent Miller with a list of concerns.

“Of course pesticides, pest control, mold control, what kind of fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, trying to learn more about that. I’ve noticed a lot of folks take a completely organic approach. Because that’s going to be kind of a challenging issue.”

Under I-502, Washington’s Liquor Control Board will have to write the rules on everything from proper pesticide application to how to recall contaminated marijuana products.

“Ultimately it’s about quality assurance is what I’m looking at,” says Steenhout.

Let’s take just one of the thornier issues. In the marijuana business it’s common to use solvents like Butane to extract THC from the buds and leaves of pot plants. Jim Andersen of a company called XTracted admits he did this illegally for years. Now he does it for the medical marijuana industry.

Done right, Butane extraction produces high-potency hash. Done wrong and you can trigger an explosion or produce a solvent-laced final product.

The Liquor Control Board staff has come here to learn how Andersen safeguards against both problems. In another room he proudly pulls out a wax paper covered sheet of the extracted product.

“Can you smell that aroma?” he asks.

It smells like very powerful marijuana. And it is. This oily, yellow smear – picture a very thin cow pie – is Butane-produced Hash Oil or BHO. This particular strain is called “Plushberry.” Anderson says the THC level in this stuff is nearly 80 percent – that’s really high. In its final form it’s often smoked or vapor inhaled.

Andersen hopes the Liquor Control Board writes strict rules for extracting THC out of the marijuana. He says in the illegal market people sometimes use lighter fluid – they call it blasting tubes. He adds any product headed to the legal market needs to be tested for residual solvent.

“Every time, whether you are a back yard tuber blowing it and blasting it or you’re a professional extracting company above board, you need to have testing period,” Anderson insists.

That’s where marijuana testing labs come in. In Seattle’s University District, the Liquor Control Board staff is treated to a PowerPoint horror show – under-the-microscope pictures of things you don’t want in your pot.

“We have a mite here, which is not uncommon and some remains of mites,“ says Randy Oliver. He is with a Cannabis lab called Analytical 360.

“Another problem that we see is there’s a lot of mold you can imagine here in Washington.”

Mites and molds are not the half of it. There are all the food borne pathogens the people who handle the marijuana can leave behind – like E. Coli. Oliver’s lab tests for those dangers too. But he says just like in the food business there’s no replacement for strict handling and processing rules – whether the marijuana eventually ends up in a pipe, a brownie or a liquid drop you place under your tongue.

“You know cleanliness is really critically here," Oliver says. "The equipment has to be clean, the facilities have to be clean and everything needs to be documented properly.”

The problem is there are no national standards for lab testing marijuana. Mike Steenhout of the Liquor Board calls it the Wild, Wild West. And it’s not like he’s getting help from the FDA – marijuana is still a no-no at the federal level.

So Steenhout and his colleagues have to build the regulatory structure for legal marijuana from the ground up. They’ve hired a team of consultants and will borrow from the rulebooks for places like commercial kitchens.

At the end of a long day I ask Steenhout if this is daunting, complicated, overwhelming?

“I’d use all of those words," he replies. "It’s like an onion. Every time that we pull a layer off there’s just another layer of complexity and information to learn. It’s immensely challenging. It’s by far the most complex thing I’ve very encountered.”

In the end, the Washington State Liquor Control Board will have to balance the need to regulate this new industry against the cost of doing so. As the state’s new pot consultant says: it’s a goldilocks problem. Too much regulation will drive up the price of legal marijuana and encourage a black market. Too little and unsafe pot will reach consumers.

On the Web:

I-502 Implementation updates - Washington Liquor Control Board

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."