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Washington State University
CAS Connect May 2016

The buzz about legalizing marijuana

WSU criminologist examines the marijuana industry on the Palouse

With several U.S. states set to vote on legalizing marijuana in November, policymakers nationwide are looking at Washington’s marijuana industry to inform their future regulations.

Aaron Roussell

Aaron Roussell, assistant professor in the WSU Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, details the grower-to-consumer process in a field study to be published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Roussell and collaborator Eric L. Jensen, a University of Idaho sociologist, wanted to find out how Washington’s regulations and taxes on marijuana growers, retailers, and consumers were impacting the supply chain nearly four years after legalization.

“The goal of this study was to get the word out about the effects of legalization on the emerging marijuana industry in rural eastern Washington,” Roussell said. “Our hope is our work will help other states design effective marijuana regulatory regimes” and will assist with addressing related income and employment issues, he said.

Landmark legislation

In 2012, Washington’s Initiative 502 (I-502) legalized small amounts of marijuana-related products for adults 21 and older.

Cannabis leaves
Cultivated marijuana plants

The legislation took marijuana out of the black market and created an emergent consumer marketplace that is being regulated and taxed for the first time in U.S. history. Marijuana consumers currently pay a 37 percent sales tax on all cannabis purchases, the majority of which supports the state healthcare trust and other substance-abuse prevention and education programs.

Without any precedent to base new marijuana safety and financial guidelines on, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) drew heavily on existing alcohol, tobacco, and agricultural standards to design its regulatory regime.

“Because the legalization of marijuana in Washington is so unprecedented, state officials have tended to err on the cautious side,” Roussell said.

Information on the amount of product grown, processed, and sold across the state is monitored by the WSLCB and marijuana growers. Retailers and growers must keep up with strict security requirements. For example, Moonlight Alchemy, a 9,000-square-foot cannabis cultivation facility on the outskirts of Pullman, is surrounded by an 8-foot metal wall and all entrances are required to be locked 24 hours a day. Visitors must call and receive clearance to enter, and more than 40 video surveillance cameras have been installed on the premises.

According to Roussell’s report, independent laboratories that enforce safety regulations and conduct microbial analysis on marijuana products fail approximately 15-25 percent of the samples submitted to them for testing. The growers interviewed argue it is difficult, if not impossible, to meet the strict agricultural standards, including the expectation of nearly zero contamination from air-borne contaminants.

The first of the three recreational cannabis retail stores now operating in Pullman opened in October 2014. Roussel’s interviews with the store’s owners revealed sales have grown considerably and the number of cannabis strains available on the shelves has increased five-fold, from four to nearly two dozen. The owners also reported the average buyer to be more than 40 years old.

Social justice impact

One of the social justice goals of the authors of I-502 was to reduce the number of marijuana-related cases in the state judiciary system. Roussell’s study notes that the number of cannabis-related court filings across the state fell from almost 7,000 in 2011 to fewer than 200 in 2015. Recently, the City of Spokane began allowing residents to apply to have their past misdemeanor marijuana convictions vacated.

When you look at impoverished communities, significant numbers of people have prison records due to drug-related offenses,” Roussell said. “But many of these marginalized people were in the revenue stream when marijuana was illegal and are now getting boxed out from well-paying jobs in the legal marijuana industry because of their criminal records and the industry structure.

“I would like to see more effort put into addressing this, and more money from marijuana taxes go into social programs to benefit poor communities statewide and restoring jobs that I-502 essentially erased.”

Rousell’s work aligns with the WSU Grand Challenge of advancing opportunity and equity by promoting an informed and equitable society, analyzing economic, educational, and social protocols, and advancing social justice.