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Nation/World

April 21, 2013

For government bean-counter, a weed education

SEATTLE — Mike Steenhout knows spreadsheets, statistics and bean-counting. He has worked as a budget assistant to the governor, managed local operations for the U.S. Census Bureau and analyzed juvenile crime databases.

Now, the married, minivan-driving father of a small child is a weed guy — one of the dozens of Washington state workers involved in the creation and regulation of the nation’s first legal marijuana industry.

So he spends his days studying a substance that until recently he knew almost nothing about, beyond the few joints he smoked in college. It feels like cramming for a final exam, he says.

“It’s very surreal,” Steenhout said recently as he stood in a darkened room full of blossoming pot plants. “I generally go to work fairly early, around 6:30 or 7, and leave about 5 or 6, and I’m pretty much talking about marijuana in one way or another every single hour.”

Steenhout’s cannabis crash course could be for naught if the U.S. Justice Department sues to keep legal pot sales that Washington and Colorado voters approved last fall from taking effect. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

In Washington, voters legalized pot for adults over 21 and set up a system of state-licensed pot growers, processors and stores.

The state has hired a Massachusetts firm to serve as its official marijuana consultant, but the Liquor Control Board, which collects taxes and fees from booze sales and licensing, is also doing its own research into how to best regulate pot.

Steenhout, the agency’s comptroller, has new duties that include researching quality assurance: how the pot can be produced, processed and tested to ensure the final product doesn’t have contaminants such as mold and that there is a consistent potency when it reaches store shelves.

His research will help inform the board’s three voting members as they decide what to require of the industry. All rules need to be finalized before the agency begins issuing licenses to retail stores in December.

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