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In 2012, Washington and Colorado voters made history when they approved measures to legalize recreational marijuana. Washington Initiative 502 “authorizes the state liquor board to regulate and tax marijuana for persons twenty-one years of age or older.”Since the vote in Washington, the Liquor Board has written a complex set of rules for the state’s new, legal recreational cannabis marketplace. The agency has also set limits on the amount of marijuana that can be grown. And the Board has begun to license growers, processors and retailers.For now, the Obama administration has signaled it will not interfere with Washington and Colorado’s legal pot experiment, unless there is evidence that legal pot is “leaking” to other states or children are getting access to the legal product. The feds are also watching to see if criminal organizations exploit the legal market.The first marijuana retail stores in Washington opened in July 2014.Recreational marijuana is also set to become legal in Oregon on July 1, 2015 after voters approved Measure 91 in November 2014.

Seed-To-Sale Tracking Alone Won't Stop Marijuana 'Leakage'

Katherine Hitt

As Washington moves to legalize recreational pot, preventing “leakage” to other states like Oregon and Idaho is a top priority of the U.S. Justice Department

Barcodes will help the state track marijuana from “seed-to-sale,” but technology alone won’t keep Washington pot in Washington. 

Last August Governor Jay Inslee pledged to enact a “disciplined” and “regulated” legal recreational marijuana marketplace.

“We’re not going to allow distribution of this product in a way that has massive leakage outside of the state of Washington," he said.

With that in mind, Washington’s Liquor Control Board has adopted strict traceability rules for marijuana businesses. The rules say licensees must track marijuana from seed to sale and report much of that information to the state.

This is where a Florida-based company called BioTrackTHC comes in.

“Every single plant inside your production facility will be assigned its own unique, 16-digit, not repeatable bar code number,” says BioTrackTHC’s director of marketing Anthony Stevens. The company was selected by the Liquor Control Board to customize a tracing system that will allow the state to monitor and track any marijuana plant at any time.

BioTrackTHC wouldn’t talk about its work for the state, but the company is already marketing its off-the-shelf tracking software to would-be marijuana licensees in Washington.

“People always ask me ‘so Anthony are you telling me that if an employee steals from me I can find out on this report?’ Well, actually yeah, you definitely could,” says Stevens.

But will it be that simple for the state?

Colorado had grand plans for a seed-to-sale monitoring system of medical marijuana. But an audit earlier this year found that wasn’t happening – largely because of a lack of money to do the oversight.

In Washington, liquor board deputy director Randy Simmons says his agency will get $5 million a year to administer the state’s new marijuana law.

“Fortunately the initiative writers gave us money to actually run the oversight of this business," he says. That did not happen in Colorado. So I think we’re way ahead of where Colorado was.”

Simmons says the software system will be built to look for red flags. But Alex Cooley with Solstice Co-Op, a medical marijuana provider that already tracks it product from seed-to-sale, says it’s going to take investigators with real expertise to effectively analyze the state.

“The people that they hire to do this inspection and enforcement need to be very intelligent and capable of easily determining if a license holder is being dishonest with them,” says Cooley.

But is all this time, money and effort to prevent leakage really necessary? Washington’s former pot consultant Mark Kleiman of UCLA is skeptical.

“I think the tracking system is not a very a good solution to mostly a non-problem,” he says.

Kleiman predicts the marijuana that leaves Washington’s borders will be the black market variety, not the stuff that’s regulated and taxed.

“I mean everybody’s fixated on whether the legal system leaks and I understand that concern, but I just doubt that’s going to be the major source of exports.”

Randy Simmons at the Liquor Board tends to agree. But he says the state has to play it safe – after all marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic by the feds.

“And I think to get the buy-in from Department of Justice that we needed and wanted, traceability system was part of that,” says SImmons.

Even if leakage isn’t a big problem to start, it could be down the road as the black market shrinks and the price of legal pot comes down. Then there might be a financial incentive to let some product slip out the back door.

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."