Just after Washington voters legalized recreational pot in November, a longtime drug dealer walked into the Olympia headquarters of the state Liquor Control Board.
He got a visitor’s badge and headed to the agency’s board room, where he met Randy Simmons and a group of select state workers laying the groundwork for a regulated marijuana system untested on the planet.
The dealer gave a Pot 101 presentation: what it is, how you grow it, products made from it. For the agency charged with implementing the new law, it was the start of a steep learning curve.
The agency has 80 years of experience regulating vodka and whiskey, but none with sativa and indica.
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Much of the world is watching Washington, as well as Colorado, as the two states try to deliver legal pot to adult consumers. But virtually no one knows Simmons, 60, the bureaucrat leading the spade work on Washington’s effort, the person closest to being the state’s ganja guru.
While three appointed Liquor Control Board members will decide rules and regulations, they’re getting much of their information from Simmons and his 11 research teams. And though journalists have gone giddy about the part-time weed consultants the state is hiring by next week, those consultants will report to Simmons and are working in part to confirm — or dispute — research done by his teams.
Board member Chris Marr called Simmons “the man behind the curtain.” Agency Director Pat Kohler said he’s a “go-to guy” with wisdom and private-sector experience.
Known in the agency as a calm problem-solver, Simmons’ actual job title is administrative services director. It should be “sucker,” jokes Simmons, a grandpa and former insurance-company pension administrator who looks a bit like Rob Reiner with a bushier beard.
His regular responsibilities include oversight of auditing, accounting, contractors and IT. He oversaw financial aspects of privatizing the liquor stores.
He tried to avoid the marijuana duty, he said.
Why? Simmons was working at 10:30 on a recent night — and that was a sick day.
He and agency staff appreciate the historic nature of their work.
In his bunkerlike office with a view of a retaining wall, Simmons has two whiteboards not far from his Lord of the Rings calendar. The whiteboards are sprinkled with inspirational quotes from Goethe and Gandalf the Grey, Smashmouth and Superman.
“I’m not the policy decision-maker,” Simmons said, comparing his job to directing traffic. “I’m just trying to get everybody to the point where they can make those decisions.”
It’s only logical that Initiative 502 calls for the Liquor Board to implement the state’s new pot system. The initiative treats pot like alcohol, a substance adults should be allowed to use responsibly. The architecture of the new seed-to-store system borrows from state alcohol regulation with a three-tiered structure of producers, processors and retailers.
The agency’s troops are well-conditioned for the challenge, having spent much of last year in a forced march to dismantle the state’s liquor-store system after voters decided to privatize it.
When polling in October showed I-502 likely to pass, agency leaders started planning for another dramatic change. They decided to use the same 11 in-house teams — covering finance, technology, enforcement, licensing and more — for pot that guided the privatizing of liquor stores.
Some employees voted against I-502 and were uncomfortable with legal pot, Simmons said. Others were stoked about their mission. Still others saw it as a measure of job security. None left the agency in protest, he said.
In all, about 40 employees have touched the marijuana project in some way — although they’re not allowed to touch marijuana itself. Kohler credits licensing director Alan Rathbun and enforcement chief Justin Nordhorn as key players along with Simmons.
Probably the most significant challenge to come in rule making is finding the sweet spot in supply and prices that will nourish a state system while undercutting the black market. If the state produces too much pot, it likely will leak into the black market. If it produces too little, the black market may flourish. Similar dynamics are at play in pricing.
Simmons and gang started with the question: What’s a marijuana plant? Soon they were conversant in the high mortality rate of clones.
“It’s been a huge brain dump,” said Simmons, who spent 23 years in the insurance industry before going to work for the state.
His employees visited Colorado and California to research growing and processing operations. Some have brought back more detail than the board can use. “At some point we have to stop bringing information in and start building rules,” Simmons said.
Gathering knowledge isn’t as daunting as sorting through prejudices can be. Some sources were against the plant altogether, he said. “Some were against any regulation whatsoever.”
Along the way Simmons has amassed a thick binder on testing, security, federal law and more.
That’s where the temporary consultants come in. They’ll answer outstanding questions and check the Liquor Board’s research, Simmons said.
The state needs help, he said, in areas such as the dispersion rate of recreational marijuana users in the state. That calls for scientifically valid polling more than weed expertise.
“Part of this is political,” Simmons said. “When you’re dealing with the federal government you want to make sure you did it the best way possible.”
In the meantime, Simmons said, everyone he knows wants to talk about his work. That includes his four grown sons, whose positions vary, he said, from “can’t wait til it’s legal” to “never going to try it.”
“ALCOHOL IS WORSE”
Simmons doesn’t think pot is a harmful gateway drug. “I’ve always felt alcohol is worse,” he said.
His most intense experience with drugs came in the early ’70s, he said, when he was in the Army and smoked hashish with other soldiers in their barracks. Simmons said he hasn’t imbibed since the ’70s.
He believed in the medical benefits of marijuana long before I-502 passed, he said. An uncle with cancer used it and his mother recently got a medical-marijuana authorization, he said, for her arthritis pain.
If he does his job as a regulator, Simmons said, he’s going to make some people unhappy.
“No matter what product you’re regulating, whether it’s alcohol or marijuana, you have to get back to the agency’s mission, which is public safety,” he said. “I think adults should have the choice to do it safely, but that gets us back to our job and what is safely.”