Why is Washington the Only State Where You Can’t Smell Weed Before You Buy?

July 5, 2017

In so many regards, Washington State is ahead of the pack when it comes to cannabis and its smooth integration into safe, legal and well-regulated adult use. You’ll recall that voters approved cannabis for recreational use way back in 2012, and 2017’s Washington Senate Bill 5131 further refines and bolsters the original, groundbreaking legislation.

But in one crucial—and frustrating—regard, Washington is an outlier. Unlike every other state with legal weed, Washington marijuana laws prohibit customers from actually smelling their products before purchase.

Washington Marijuana Law: An Uncomfortable Compromise

This creates a major roadblock for dispensaries and consumers alike. Given that terpenes—the distinct aromatic compounds that give each strain its character—are perhaps the single most important signifiers of a plant’s identity, not allowing consumers to smell cannabis is akin to purchasing a bottle of fruit juice without being told what kind of fruit it is. You may end up with a juice you enjoy, but you have no way of knowing in advance.

One result is that customers in Washington are much more likely to purchase types of cannabis they’re unfamiliar with in the smallest amount possible, for fear of ending up with a product they don’t care for. This means repeat trips to the dispensary—not a bad thing in and of itself, but a potential inefficiency—and an extended period of trial and error.

In defense of this Washington marijuana law, retailers are permitted to display tiny amounts of cannabis in small mesh-covered “sniff jars” so that customers can get an idea of the nature of the product. But given the plant’s volatility—it quickly grows stale when decanted into an unsealed environment—the jars end up offering an inferior representation of the plant, and most dispensaries forgo this practice.

Misunderstanding Cannabis’ Nature?

The prohibition against smelling cannabis belies some fundamental misperceptions of its nature. For one, it assumes that marijuana is intoxicating in its unvaporized or uncombusted state (there is no evidence to support this).

It’s also a holdover from traditional liquor laws, which historically have targeted “open containers” as a focus of enforcement. From a legal standpoint, the desire to limit access—especially to minors, or others who may not have legal standing to purchase the cannabis themselves—makes good sense.

But while some products, like cannabis tinctures, edibles, and beverages—can, in fact, be shared from such an “open container,” the cannabis flower retailers want customers to be able to smell isn’t readily consumed in this way (unless you’re planning on eating a handful of flower, which we don’t recommend). In short, the law applies a reasonably appropriate restriction to the product it’s least appropriate for.

Hope for the Future, or Holding Our Breath?

As noted above, the passage of Bill 5131 was widely hailed as an improvement over existing Washington marijuana laws, but it did nothing to clarify this aggravating loophole in the retail experience. Given the long development periods required for bills of this nature, it’s a safe bet we’re stuck with the current arrangement for the foreseeable future.

If this aspect of the retail experience is frustrating, we can take heart in our state’s otherwise forward-leaning and comprehensive take on cannabis. Let’s hope there’s a solution soon, either in the form of a more refined legal approach, or perhaps the wide adoption of Smell-O-Vision.


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