In this photo taken April 4, 2013, Mike Steenhout, comptroller of Washington's Liquor Control Board, takes photos as he tours a marijuana growing facility in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
SEATTLE (AP) - They've spent nearly eight months visiting marijuana grow houses, studying the science of getting high and earning nicknames like "the queen of weed." Now, officials in Washington are taking their first stab at setting rules for the state's new legal weed industry.
The state is releasing preliminary draft rules Thursday afternoon, possibly covering an array of topics ranging from how pot should be grown, labeled and tested for quality assurance to what types of security should be required at state-licensed pot businesses.
But some of the most interesting questions - such as how much marijuana will be grown and how many retail stores will be licensed - aren't likely to be answered yet. The state's official pot consultant is still working to estimate how much marijuana people here use, and those estimates will help determine how much pot gets produced.
"It's been a lot of long hours," said Brian Smith, the spokesman for the Liquor Control Board. "We are doing the groundwork. We're trying to be as thorough as we can as we go through this initial several months since the election."
Last fall voters made Washington and Colorado the first states to legalize the sale of taxed marijuana to adults over 21 at state-licensed stores.
In Colorado, devising rules for the pot industry fell to the Legislature, which has passed a series of bills laying out how marijuana should be grown, packaged and taxed. Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bills May 28.
Washington's measure directed the Liquor Control Board, led by three voting members, to set parameters for the industry. Dozens of board employees divided into 11 teams, each researching different areas - licensing, contracting, legal and policy, enforcement - to inform the board's decisions. The teams meet weekly to keep apprised of each other's progress.
The board's comptroller, Mike Steenhout, has worked with testing labs and experts from around the world to figure out how the pot should be tested to ensure that it's safe and consistent when it reaches store shelves.
The board held eight public forums around the state to hear what pot growers, prospective retailers and others had to say. More than 3,000 people attended; few were shy about airing their views.
Now, the board is taking what it has learned and setting out what amounts to a draft of its draft rules for the industry. After allowing people to comment on the rules it releases Thursday, it will propose its official draft rules in about month, and take public comment on those. The final rules aren't expected to be adopted until this summer, with applications for pot growing, processing and retailing licenses accepted in September.
Marijuana sales at state-licensed stores should begin in early 2014 - unless the Justice Department has something to say about it. Pot remains illegal federally, and the DOJ could sue to try to block the licensing schemes in Washington and Colorado from taking effect.
So far, the Liquor Control Board has given few hints about what the rules will entail. Board Chairwoman Sharon Foster - who began a speech at a recent conference by saying, "My friends now call me the queen of weed" - has said that the board probably won't allow open-field marijuana grows, because they're too hard to control. There won't be any pot delivery companies to take weed from a dispensary and deliver it to customers, because the law does not provide for licensing of pot delivery companies. People who have old pot-related convictions probably won't be barred from obtaining licenses.
But many other questions remain. How does the state plan to collect taxes, when federally insured banks won't let marijuana businesses open accounts? How much pot-related advertising will be allowed, if any? Will there be caps on the numbers of growers and processors licensed to provide pot and pot products to the stores? What should be done with all the plants - stalks, roots and leaves - after harvest?
Cale Burkhart, who makes marijuana-infused topical creams under the Vita Verde brand, said he hopes the board doesn't limit the number of growers and processors.
"It's an emerging industry, and it's one that most anybody, as long as they can have their ducks in a row, can break into," he said. "It should be open to people, so that grandma, or a high school dropout, can have the opportunity to start a business and be successful. I'm excited to see if that's how they're going to do it."