Now Legal, Washington State Ponders Regulating Pot

Jun 9, 2013
Originally published on June 9, 2013 11:58 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


In Colorado, the recreational use of marijuana is now legal. Those statutes which were approved by voters last fall were just signed into law. Voters in Washington state also approved recreational pot and that state is now in the process of formulating just how the drug will be regulated.

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at UCLA. And he's heading up the team advising Washington on implementing its marijuana laws. He says that state's rules will be based on its alcohol and tobacco laws.

MARK KLEIMAN: They set up an alcohol-like system with three levels of licenses; producers, processors and retailers. And they assign the regulatory tasks to do the liquor board. Now, if I'd been writing law I probably would've written it differently, since it seems to me that alcohol has been a marked lack of success; quite a bad job at controlling that drug.

The best model in my view would have been a state monopoly because that gets rid of the industry that otherwise has interest in promoting the drug. But you can't do that as long as marijuana is illegal under federal law.

MARTIN: There are a lot of kind of practical questions many people may have. One of them is about what happens when you get pulled over. I assume there is nothing like a marijuana breathalyzer test.

KLEIMAN: Right, alcohol in the blood comes out in the breath. And the level of alcohol in the blood is a pretty good measure of how intoxicated that person is. Cannabis in the blood, THC in the blood does not come out in the breath. There is some indication that mouth swabs might be useful to measure recent cannabis use, but that technology has not been developed yet. So you fall back on blood tests, which have huge disadvantages from a law enforcement point of view. The Supreme Court just ruled that you can't require a blood test without a specific court order.

MARTIN: So you can't give a blood test if you pull someone over on the side of the road.

KLEIMAN: Well, you certainly can't do it at roadside. It's a medical procedure. It requires somebody who's qualified to do it, which does not include police officers. And even when you get the bloodwork back, it's not very conclusive, because cannabinoids are absorbed by fat cells and then rereleased. So somebody can have THC on board three days after using cannabis, way after his subjective condition's back to baseline.

So whether we can actually define blood chemistry that's a pretty good match for being intoxicated, I think remains an open question.

MARTIN: What about purity and strength of the drug? What are you telling Washington state about creating systems to certify the product?

KLEIMAN: Washington is clearly going to require testing. First, impurities: molds yeasts, spores, fungi, pesticide residue, fertilizer residue. But then the question is what else goes on the label? Certainly the content of THC, which is the main psychoactive - the main thing that gets people high. Also, I would think, the level of cannabidiol, which seems to be a buffer.

MARTIN: What is that? What does that mean?

KLEIMAN: Cannabidiol is another molecule that's made by the cannabis plant. And it partly blocks the receptor sites so the THC can't get there, but it also has its own apparently anxiety-relieving effects. In fact, it's actually being studied as a substitute for things like Valium.

MARTIN: What about advertising? I mean marketing of cigarettes and alcohol is very strict. How would this work with marijuana?

KLEIMAN: I think marketing addictive substances is a really bad idea. Any business that sells a product that some people use too much of is going to have those people as its best customers. And so, the effective promotion is to increase drug abuse. And I think that applies to Bud versus Bud Light on the Super Bowl. I don't think it's specific to cannabis.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has decided that a legislature can ban a product entirely but cannot ban advertising of it once it's legal. Now, that seems to me like an idea that only a lawyer could love. But that's actually the law of the land. So if cannabis is ever legalized nationally, it's going to be very hard to restrict marketing. However, it's still illegal nationally, right?

I mean, the weird thing about both Colorado and Washington is that they are in the process of figuring out how to tax and regulate and license what remains a felony under federal law. And so, the thing that's going to keep marketing down is the fact that if you put a billboard up, the DEA will come after you. 'Cause what you're doing could put you in federal prison, even if it's legal under Colorado or Washington's law.

I think that's what's going to keep the marketing down to a dull roar, at least at the beginning.

MARTIN: Mark Kleiman of UCLA. Thank you so much for talking with us.

KLEIMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.