What did the Washington Liquor Board do about cannabis concentrates?

Why did the Washington State Liquor Control Board backtrack and allow the sale of cannabis concentrates?

A friend who follows drug policy is puzzled by this line in a Reuters story about the semi-final rulemaking for Washington’s regulated cannabis market.

Responding to concerns of fueling a black market, the board also clarified that highly potent marijuana extracts,which have gained in popularity in recent years, may be legally sold so long as they are adulterated with at least trace amounts of an inert substance, such as vegetable oil.

Yes, it’s rather hard to figure out what that means, but the reporter – working within space constraints – can certainly be pardoned for not explicating fully. Here’s the story as I understand it:

The Liquor Board faced a legal question and a policy question.

The legal question is whether the initiative-passed statute the Board is supposed to implement, which permits the sale of “useable marijuana” (defined as flowers) and of “marijuana-infused products,” does or does not allows the sale of concentrates such as hashish or “hash oil.” The lawyers for the Board decided that it didn’t. But – as I among others pointed out – that created a definitional puzzle. Clearly, a drop of butane hash oil in a gallon of olive oil would constitute a “marijuana-infused product.” But how about a drop of olive oil in a gallon of BHO? At what magical point does diluted BHO become infused olive oil?

The policy question, at first blush, was whether concentrates are more dangerous than the herbal form. My guess is that the answer will turn out to be “It depends,” – e.g., on the difference between controlled-dose vaporization and dabbing – but we don’t actually know much about either the relevant pharmacology or the relevant consumer behavior. We do know that the number of trips to the emergency room involving cannabis is up about 50% over the past decade, and now runs just under half a million visits a year, so the question of how to prevent cannabis-induced panic attacks does need some attention, and there’s reason to think that preparations and modes of administration that get more THC to the brain more quickly are associated with more risk.

But here again there was a complexity. The Board could ban the sale of concentrates in the stores it regulates, but not in the unregulated quasi-medical market or the purely illicit market. So a ban on concentrates might have slowed the migration of consumers into the taxed and regulated market without much reducing the actual use of concentrates.  (That’s the part of the story the reporter was trying to tell.)

Still more complexity: The law allows the sale and possession of up to an ounce at at time of “useable marijuana,” but up to 72 ounces of “marijuana-infused products in liquid form.” That makes sense for, e.g., cannabis-laced root beer, which is mostly water. But 72 ounces of pure BHO could be $100,000 worth, in an easy-to-smuggle package. So if concentrates are indeed going to be sold, the quantity limit ought to be a fraction, rather than a multiple, of the quantity limit for herbal cannabis.

In the end, the Board decided to use the legal ambiguity to punt the policy question. The “one-drop” rule will apply, allowing concentrates to be sold as long as they have some admixture, no matter the how trivial, of something else. In January, the legislature will be asked to amend the law to explicitly allow what can’t be prevented, while imposing a reasonable quantity limit of perhaps five grams.


If I sometimes seem just a tad impatient with those who are “for” or “against” something they call “marijuana legalization” based on abstract general principles, the concentrates story shows why. This sh*t is complicated, people!

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “What did the Washington Liquor Board do about cannabis concentrates?”

  1. True dat. The cited study is quite informative. But the really startling stats are with respect to pharmaceuticals –ER visits up over 100%, especially for pain relievers. Are we observing a general correlation here?

  2. I respect the State of Washington for hiring as a consultant to their implementation of legalization a person who takes a nuanced, this-is-complicated, there’s some bad here and some good, view of the situation. So much easier to just hire someone who’ll tell you it’s a tax revenue bonanza opportunity, and let someone else deal with the consequences down the road.

  3. While I can’t agree with every decision in Washington state to this point, I believe decisions like this demonstrate the LCB is taking its charge seriously and, even more importantly, is taking constructive input from consumers seriously. Dr. Kleiman is a significant part of this positive process. This is how prohibition should be ended, by embracing a model that promotes the general welfare while resisting the inclination to just turn the whole process into prohibition-lite.

    Now if something could just be done about home-grow, I’d be behind things 99%+.

  4. Leaving aside the legal issue, as a don’t you want to encourage edibles over smoked cannabis? IIRC those are easier to make from hash than from raw cannabis.

  5. Say Mark, what exactly is DAWNs criteria for a cannabis “related” ER “visit”? It used to be anyone who mentioned cannabis. “Well doc, I was sitting in the park under a tree smoking a joint, when a thunderstorm hit, the tree got hit by lightning, knocked a branch loose which landed on my head knocking me out.” Now, is that really a reality based ER visit caused by cannabis?

    1. In some studies, ER visits have been flagged cannabis related if the patient’s blood tested positive for cannabis regardless of the reason for the visit.

      1. I would guess also that people are now more willing to take somebody to the ER, due to laws and policies against charging people.

  6. The pharmacology is the same as with Cannabis, Doctor. People have been using extracts in excess of 70%THC since the discovery of Hash Oil. (I got plenty of experience with it in the 1970’s I can tell you.) The only difference is in the solvent used for the extraction.

  7. This is not pro or con for cannabis and/or concentrates. Just a simple and silly scenario of the “one drop” rule for concentrates.

    My girlfriend and I walk into a legal cannabis retailer who specializes in concentrates.

    Me: I would like to buy that 72 ounce bottle (roughly a 2 liter bottle) of “Golden Ambrosia”, infused hash oil.
    GF: Me too.
    Me: Is this a legally cannabis infused product in liquid form that I am allowed to purchase by Washington state law?
    Salesperson: Why yes, it is! We put in one drop of organic olive oil into the hash oil. All legal.
    Me: Great. (hands over briefcase of cash). Thanks.

    Now, my girlfriend and I now legally possess about 4 liters or 1 gallon of infused hash oil. Literally worth liquid gold, which
    I can divert almost anywhere in the US. Easy to conceal and easy to transport. Smurfing, at the extremes. Try to do the equivalent value
    with dried cannabis. If you can possibly imagine, the Feds and non-legal states would not be too happy.

    So, my questions are: How do we satisfy the demand for concentrates, safeguard for consumer and public safety, while avoiding the
    big, black boot from the Feds? Yeah, complicated…

  8. “We do know that the number of trips to the emergency room involving cannabis is up about 50% over the past decade,”

    How many of those visits resulted in death??

    I hear of KID’S dying from Monster drinks,, What is the % increase of those involving Monster Drinks and other caffeine related products??

    And no one cares that these “KILLER” beverages are being targeted towards kid’s!

  9. “…we don’t actually know much about either the relevant pharmacology or the relevant consumer behavior…”

    It seems that people who have actual knowledge of these things have been purposely excluded from the policymaking process.

  10. Simple solution:

    Mechanically prepared concentrates (e.g., hash & kief) = okay

    Chemically produced concentrates (e.g., oils, waxes, etc.) = not okay except for medical use

    Thus is the case in Amsterdam. Oils aren’t sold in coffee shops, but hash & kief are widely available.

    The playing-out of the end of federal alcohol prohibition provides us with a useful guide: beer & wine were legalized before hard liquor.


  11. So this adding just one drop of “something” to the 72 ounces of BHO was the best solution the LCB could find? This is really the “short bus” team at work here. If the Liquor Control Board had been given the task of writing regulations on the production and processing of Jack Daniels whiskey, we’d have the only “dry” state in the Union. They couldn’t even run a successful liquor monopoly and the voters had to take that away from them.

    This is hardly the biggest issue the LCB needs to deal with or their won’t be any product to begin with…”infused” or otherwise.

    As I stated literally hundreds of times during the I-502 debates, this initiative was designed to pass…it was never designed to be implemented. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not it would fail. It was only a matter of which of the very obvious icebergs this Titanic was going to hit first on it’s maiden voyage. You had the Federal issue, the banking issue, the black market issue, along with the one that you made the biggest issue of…”medical cannabis”….which was the least of your problems.

    Well the Titanic is about to hit not one, but two icebergs, at the same time. Apparently none of the geniuses on any of the “11 teams” of people working on this implementation even saw this coming….or at least never mentioned it.

    So far over 50 cities and counties have passed moratoriums, mostly “emergency” moratoriums, in order to study the environmental/land use impacts of I-502. Two more were just added yesterday and this appears to be spreading very rapidly across the state. They are claiming a wide variety of environmental concerns (and haven’t even hit on the biggest one yet). Any other state agency would have understood from the beginning that they’d have to file SEPA and do an Environmental Impact Study. Every agency but the short bus team at the LCB. Even when we asked them about it, they seemed act like we were speaking Mandarin to them. They should have been working on SEPA back in November so that they’d be ready to include it in their public hearing process. No one apparently thought about that, including Botec.

    So now all the cities and counties intend to hold up zoning because of “environmental concerns” that they believe are serious enough to pass “emergency” ordinances. How did the LCB respond once they figured out they were screwed? They tried a “hail Mary”. They file a “letter in non-significance” stating that there were no significant environmental issues that needed to be addressed. The only document they site is the hastily produced white paper from Botec. This was an embarrassing document. It was the sort of “cut & paste” job you did in junior high the night before your term paper was due; simply taking whatever you could find on the internet and trying to hobble it together to look like you’d actually done “research”. This will never pass as a EIS by any stretch of the imagination. It will probably do the LCB more harm than good and actually points out environmental issues that should have been considered in an EIS. It left out some very serious ones that they can’t possibly avoid.

    You can be certain that the cities will make sure that the LCB has to do an EIS. This will have to include some federal agencies, including, or especially, the USDA. Since the didn’t do SEPA from the beginning, and this will require “significant changes” to their proposed regulations, the LCB will be required to start this process all over from the very beginning. Since this will require the involvement of the Feds, this could easily take 1-2 years to complete. In the meantime, no licenses can be issued, no pot can be grown or sold, and no taxes can be collected. The LCB met with numerous city and county officials over the last several months. If they didn’t discuss the environmental impact issues, what was it they were discussing that was so “valuable”, at least according to Rick Garza?

    And the LCB is worried about adding a drop of “something” to hash to turn it into an “infused product” instead of a concentrate? I hear fiddling while Rome is burning.

    The Feds don’t need to do anything. All they need to do is sit back and laugh their asses off at the LCB trying to implement this ridiculously flawed piece of legislation. Why would they want to come in like bullies when all they have to do is sit back and wait for it self-destruct?

    And the Liquor Control Board is tasked with writing regulations for medical now in the middle of all of this? Gimme a break! What’s next? The Department of Fish and Game deciding who gets a liver transplant?

    Steve Sarich
    Cannabis Action Coalition

  12. It seems as though the LCB and Botec were so busy trying to milk the initiative for all it’s worth before asking the $64,000 federal and banking questions, they missed a step.Doh.

    It is nice to be able appoint board members that are loyal and willing to speak when the Governor’s policy office has their mouths open, but this time the all collective Democratic Borg system totally screwed the pooch. Knowing the command structure the way I do, you can’t blame the LCB for not tying their shoe’s you have to look at the Governor’s policy office. They are the puppeteers of all policy on the capital campus. The real blame here goes to the legislative liaisons and the special interest funneling run by John Lane. Mr. Lane handles all drug policy and nothing..and I mean nothing in the form of policy decisions can happen without his approval. This created an environment in which the LCB is just going thru the standard political process in Washington State using the political media machine that we have watched for decades now. It is a rule making process that we have seen to be full of political intervention from the start.

    Jeanne Kohl Welles has their ear..Alison Holcomb has their ear. The medical marijuana “Mikey’s” that like it (legalization)(JEFF Gilmore,Muraco-mcClintock, John Davis, Ezra Eickmeyer,Phil Wyatt, Lonnie John Brown et al) are trying to buy an ear. Alison Holcomb as them by the wallet thanks to her criminal attorney and insurance stakeholder stash. Then of course the governor’s policy office and Mr. Lane. The LCB cannot act on its own, they have to wait to do as they are told or as they are bought. Since there was no money or real concern over conducting the actual rule making process properly, now they have to create a special rule making process or move back 6 spaces on the board.

    This process has been chock full of chain emails and behind the scenes policy making that has made a complete mockery of the rule making process. Not to mention the media dog and pony show that assists the dodging of the two most glaring questions before the board, the federal conflict and banking laws.I guess if you start with the glaring and tough questions you can’t draw out the process and the wages that come with them.

    This SEPA fiasco is a confirmation that the I-502 rule making process is a dog and pony show that is trying to bandy and toil about the side issues long enough to spend the public money until the plug is pulled…or the process hits those icebergs Steve Sarich is talking about. Until then they will use the media to help steer around those icebergs until the throat slash signal comes from the law enforcement/criminal attorney/treatment industry lobbyists having lunch with John Lane at the Spar. So enjoy the show while Mr. Kleiman juggles the big beach ball with his hind flippers until the throat slash sign comes from the rule makings de facto third base coaches.

  13. Regarding the emergency room claims. Having been a user since 1977, I can tell you that when smoking regularly, I never had a panic attack. Whenever I quit for a while and started back up again I would get panic attacks from high quality strains. I would be willing to bet that most if not all of these panic attack episodes are by first time users or users that are starting again when it is out of your system. The concentrate thing is blown up to sound worse than it is. The regular user handles the dose just fine and actually uses less product to do the same job which can only be healthier. This is an issue of educating first time and return users not one of eliminating too powerful of a dose.

    Then there is the issue of adrenal glands and thyroids that can be triggered to release large amounts of adrenaline. How many of these emergency room visitors were scanned for nodules on their livers and thyroids… The fact that marijuana is illegal prevents any studies that provide reliable data.

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