January 2nd, 2017

Cannabis Legalization: A Visit To Washington State

Over the New Year’s holiday, I visited relatives in Washington State and took the opportunity to return to “Paper and Leaf,” a cannabis store that I had first visited last summer. In addition to curiosity, I was motivated by my continued struggle with the intensifying debate about the pros and cons of cannabis decriminalization versus medical or recreational legalization. Having been one of the first states to approve full cannabis legalization, Washington is a laboratory for this issue, providing the rest of the country with a potential learning opportunity.

The store is located in a Seattle neighborhood zoned as light industrial, and it has a spare, warehouse style. Security was clearly a high priority. My ID was checked for age at the door as it would have been again if I had made a purchase. I was told that agents from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board were frequently in the store and might also ask to check my ID. Similar to alcohol and tobacco products, underage young people attempt to use fake IDs or have an older sibling purchase cannabis for them. Differences do exist in that there are limitations on the quantity that can be purchased and where it can be smoked.

Quality was another major focus for cannabis legalization. A customer inquired about a lotion that she intended to purchase for a relative’s arthritic hand pain. The salesman’s description of the trust he had in the product of a certain supplier reminded me of descriptions I have heard in wine stores and restaurants specializing in locally sourced vegetables. Second-hand information from an inspecting agent, however, suggests that the content labels are not always accurate.

I was less prepared for changes in social norms, like when the staff described the common occurrence of a new 21-year old coming into the store with a parent to celebrate by selecting a cannabis product to use together.

It seems clear that the success or failure of cannabis legalization or decriminalization will depend on how it is implemented. I am still undecided, however, on which of these changes is most likely to lead to significant increases in cannabis addiction. Hopefully, we will be able to learn about this on a limited scale by examining dispassionately the evidence coming out of the states that have taken varying steps toward social experimentation.

To all my readers, a happy and healthy 2017.

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