Washington Residents Smoke Way More Weed Than Officials Thought

A new report highlights the difficulty of predicting supply and demand for a legal weed market

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Knowing how much marijuana people consume is now a very important statistic for officials in Washington and Colorado. That number can help them make sound decisions about how to regulate the supply side of the country’s first recreational marijuana markets. And on Wednesday a non-profit think tank released a report showing that Washington residents consume far more weed than the state initially thought.

In 2012, the Washington Office of Financial Management estimated that residents were consuming about 85 metric tons of marijuana. The RAND Corporation now estimates that the number is closer to 175 metric tons. That’s very roughly the difference between about 25 and 50 joints per resident each year. “You need to have a good idea about consumption to make decisions about licensing, how many distributors to allow, how many retail shops,” says Beau Kilmer, the lead researcher on the project. “And it’s important to have this information now, because people will want to know what the world looked like before the stores opened up.”

The Washington State Liquor Control Board is the body responsible for the nuts and bolts of implementing the new law. RAND researched these numbers at their behest and gave them preliminary findings months before the Board finalized rules like limiting the growing canopy, the total amount of square footage in the state that can be used for cultivating cannabis. So the disparity between RAND’s findings and the bureaucrats’ working estimate isn’t as vast as it sounds. Still, Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Board, says that any number is an educated guess at best. “No one knows what this recreational market is going to look like,” he says. “What we’ve been trying to do is establish a legal market where one exists nowhere else in the world. So you base it on the best data you have available to you.”

Getting accurate numbers about the use of illegal drugs isn’t easy. Surveys are often based on self-reports, and people often don’t want to fess up or misreport the amount they use. Many studies on marijuana, Kilmer says, have also concentrated on numbers of users and how often they use, without getting details about how much they use or how potent the product is—which could be the relative difference between a glass of wine and a night of binge drinking. In their study, the RAND analysts took data from previous surveys about drug usage circa 2011, combined them with more recent metrics and augmented that with their own web-based survey of more than 2,700 residents in Washington state. To get information about metrics like the amount of cannabis consumption, they provided photographs of weed piled next to credit cards and coins. Kilmer says their research is just the “tip of the iceberg.”

On Friday, Washington will close its window for accepting business license applications from residents who want to grow, process or sell marijuana. As of Dec. 17, the state had received 1,117 applications for producing, 817 for processing and 513 for selling. While the state placed a limit on the amount of land that can be used to grow marijuana—at 2 million square feet, the size of about 35 football fields—they did not place upper limits on the number of producers and processors who can share that total. Officials did cap retail shops at 334, which means the Board will likely have to institute a lottery for some of the spots.

The RAND survey has a big margin of error, ranging from about 135 metric tons to 225. If it turns out that the state has underestimated demand, that could make for unhappy shoppers and a run on stores. If they’ve overestimated demand, that could lead to lower prices, which may lure marijuana users from other states where weed is still a black market drug. And officials want their market to be competitive without spilling over into other jurisdictions.

Colorado is going to being blazing part of the recreational-marijuana trail before Washington does. Smith says the state plans to start issuing licenses to producers and processors in the next few months, in time for retail spots to open in the spring. Colorado, meanwhile, is in the midst of what Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown calls “the December to remember,” the final days before pot goes on sale Jan. 1. Brown says that because of licensing delays, a mere 10 shops will likely be open when potentially thousands of toking tourists descend on the town New Year’s Day.

His sentiment about so-called “Green Wednesday” sums up the position of many officials in both Colorado and Washington “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re the pioneers here,” he says. “It’s been a grind, and it’s not over. We’re going to ride herd on this industry and on these regulations. If we don’t work, we’re going to change them. And there will be gaps.” Smith says Washington regulators also built their system to have “flexibility,” so they can make changes after the theoretical market comes to life in 2014.