State marijuana regulation: Is there a standard for the systems?

State marijuana regulation: Is there a standard for the systems?

Oregon and Alaska are the latest states to try and set up user-friendly, efficient and tightly monitored online regulatory systems for the recreational marijuana market. But states might very well be on their own when it comes to quality control of those electronic systems, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. The Department of Justice doesn’t seem to have – or hasn’t seen the need to reveal – a method in place to track of how well state systems are functioning.  

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Jennifer Grover, GAO assistant director, said research for the report resulted in a lot of unanswered questions. “We don’t know exactly how the DOJ is working with state systems to keep track of how well states are doing. When we talked to them about how they are keeping track, on the one hand they said ‘Very broadly,’ and the other they said, ‘By using all sources of information.’”

She said it was unclear what exactly those sources of information are, but guesses they include specific state data. But when asked, DOJ officials did not give any detailed information on the full spectrum of data they use, Grover said, emphasizing that they don’t have they any documentation of their approach and “had not seen the need to document their plan to that point.”

Oregon was not required to provide DOJ with any information while putting its system development in motion, according to Mark Pettinger, public affairs specialist for the Oregon Liquor and Control Commission (OLCC).

“Beyond following the guidelines set up by the Cole memorandum, there isn’t a formal process. They haven’t outlined any specific criteria. Just guidelines for states with a well-regulated system that stay within the parameters,” Pettinger said. “Key is making sure product isn’t diverted into the illegal market, organized crime doesn’t have access, that children don’t have access to the product.”

Nathan Rix, an OLCC policy analyst, added that he assumed DOJ was monitoring each state, but it was unclear exactly how. So far, the OLCC hasn’t heard from the Justice Department. “Our understanding is that they are monitoring us, and if they need information they initiate that contact.”

Alaska, which is moving to an online regulation system early this summer, said the U.S. attorney based in Alaska is aware of what the state is doing and has been following the process, but has not asked for any specific information.

“They are keeping an eye on it but have not inserted themselves in the process yet,” said Cynthia Franklin, director of Alaska’s Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. "I think and would hope that if the U.S. Attorney’s Office had concerns they would let me know."

Grover said the major issue is lack of accountability for both the DOJ’s monitoring system and the state regulatory systems, leaving all involved in the dark over what’s working and what’s not. A more open monitoring system would give the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) the documentation it needs to focus on states that aren’t following the federal guidelines effectively.

The report states, “Documenting a plan specifying its monitoring process would provide DOJ with greater assurance that its monitoring activities relative to DOJ marijuana enforcement guidance are occurring as intended. Further, making this plan available to appropriate DOJ components can provide ODAG with an opportunity to gain institutional knowledge with respect to its monitoring plan, including the utility of the data ODAG is using. This can better position ODAG to identify state systems that are not effectively protecting federal enforcement priorities and, if necessary, take steps to challenge these systems in accordance with DOJ marijuana enforcement guidance.”

Grover said the DOJ has formally agreed with the GAO’s suggestions, but it has not specified when it will make a monitoring system available. “They did agree with our recommendation and said they would document a plan,” she said. “We’ll follow up with them on a regular basis.”

The DOJ did not respond to requests for an interview.

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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