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Starting tonight at midnight, the state of Washington is taking an unprecedented step: It will become the first state in the country to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Voters in Washington made that choice in November, and now the law takes effect. Though pot is still illegal under federal law, many states permit medical marijuana. But Washington's new law goes well beyond that. And as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, implementing it won't be easy.
WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: The state's liquor control board is charged with implementing the voter-passed initiative that says adults 21 and over can have a small amount of pot and use it as they wish. Now it's up to the board to do something no state or, for that matter, no country has ever done: set up a regulatory scheme for legal marijuana growers, processors and retailers. Already, there are hundreds of people who've expressed an interest in getting a piece of the action.
JOHN DAVIS: We're creating this industry from scratch.
KAUFMAN: That's John Davis. He's the co-founder of Seattle's Northwest Patient Resource Center, a well-regarded pharmacy-like outlet for medical marijuana.
DAVIS: You're looking at my counter, and here's the samples of cannabis. We have tinctures. We have oils.
KAUFMAN: Davis hopes to add recreational marijuana users to his existing base of clients, and he'll be seeking a coveted retail license from the state.
DAVIS: A lot of people, a lot of potential profit. I mean, obviously, I'm committed to it. I think it's great business. And if there's any investors out there that are willing to give me some money right now, the sky is the limit.
KAUFMAN: Davis, who's clean-cut and pays taxes, is kind of the poster boy for legalizing pot sales. But you don't have to drive far to find something quite different - tough, gritty places whose owners also want to get into the recreational marijuana business. The state liquor board will do the vetting and will come up with the rules and enforcement mechanisms.
PAT KOHLER: It definitely is a challenge.
KAUFMAN: Pat Kohler is director of the liquor control board. She'll be the first to tell you that while the liquor board has had lots of experience enforcing rules for the sale of alcohol, it knows practically nothing about the marijuana business. But she says she's reaching out to all kinds of people to get up to speed quickly.
KOHLER: I don't think you'll see stores on every corner like a Starbucks. You know, we'll look at that from a standpoint of servicing the population, but also with the mindset of public safety.
KAUFMAN: Kohler believes the magic number will be about 330 outlets. They'll be stand-alone stores and can sell just pot and pot-related products.
JAY BERNEBURG: My clients are working on pre-licensing dossiers, taking care of things that we know the liquor board is going to want: name, address, phone number, criminal history, security, floor plan, how many employees, where are you, zoning.
KAUFMAN: That's Tacoma lawyer Jay Berneburg. Berneburg has so many clients interested in licenses that he held a seminar for them last weekend. He says it's still unclear what happens to the existing scheme for selling medical marijuana, and he points to other thorny issues too.
BERNEBURG: December 6, if you are over 21 years of age, you can have up to 1 ounce of marijuana and it is not a crime. However, Washington law says the only place to legally procure this marijuana or to buy it is from a state-licensed store, which doesn't exist.
KAUFMAN: And the state has until December of next year to finalize the rules and regulations and get the stores open. No one knows just how big the legal recreational marijuana market might be, but with hefty taxes part of the scheme, state officials talk about bringing in roughly $2 billion in new revenue over five years.
There remains a huge unknown looming over all of this. The U.S. Department of Justice says possession of marijuana remains a felony. So will the department move to block the state law, or will it let the experiment in legalizing marijuana go forward? So far, the federal government isn't saying. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.