Legal marijuana: how the American system works

Jul 11, 2014

Licensed 'pot shops' open in Washington as recreational marijuana goes on sale for the first time

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Marijuana can now legally be bought and sold in the US state of Washington, after licensed "pot shops" opened their doors this week. Here's how the system works.

Where can you buy marijuana?

After receiving nearly 7,000 applications to grow, sell or process marijuana, state authorities have licensed 24 retail outlets. However, local TV station KXAN said that it may be a month before retailers start to receive the drug from state-certified growers.

The Huffington Post explains there is likely to be a shortage of legal cannabis as state officials "grapple with a backlog of would-be growers" who still need to be screened by Board of Control investigators. Out of 2,600 applicants, fewer than 80 growers have been approved.

The shortage of state-approved marijuana has prompted some stores to charge as much as $30 per gram for legal pot – twice what people pay at the state's medical marijuana dispensaries. Seattle's Center for Cannabis and Social Policy says these high costs could force "heavy users to stick with neighbourhood dispensaries or drug dealers" until the price comes down.        

How is the system regulated?

The sale of legalised marijuana in Washington depends on sophisticated tracking. "Each plant is assigned its own tracking number," explains the New York Times, and retailers must scan their produce into a state-wide tracking system to "prevent unlicensed pot entering the retail market". Stringent testing and child-resistant packaging are also required, and officials must ensure that all retailers have security measures in place before licences are granted. Would-be retailers are rejected outright if their stores are within 1,000ft of a school, child care centre or park.   

How much marijuana are people allowed to buy?

People over the age of 21 will be entitled to buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana, 16 ounces of pot-infused solids (eg chocolate), 72 ounces of pot-infused liquids or a quarter of an ounce of concentrated marijuana. But Reuters reports that many retailers will limit purchases for the next few weeks in order to stretch their limited supply.

How much will it cost?

While stores could offer a legal gram for between $10 and $12, The Guardian points out that most will probably charge around $20 "because of the low supply and high taxes – 25 per cent wholesale and 25 per cent retail".

Where are people allowed to consume the drugs?

Public consumption remains illegal, so people are allowed to consume marijuana only in private homes. People may have to ingest the drug within food or drink if they live in a building or block of flats that bans smoking.

Why was pot legalised?

In short, tax revenue. In 2012 Washington predicted that a legalised cannabis industry would bring in an additional $1.9 billion in tax revenue over five years.

What is the situation in the rest of the US?

Colorado, the only other US state in which cannabis is legal, completed its first study into the market on Wednesday and found that "demand for marijuana is much larger than previously estimated". Demand amounts to almost 130 tons a year, the report says,22 a third higher than recent projections from the Department of Revenue. Authors also concluded that legalised Marijuana has an average market rate of $8 per gram in the state.

Legalisation initiatives are set to appear on a number of state ballots in 2016, including Alaska, Nevada and California. The Guardian reports that Washington DC and New York are also considering a change in the law.

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