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Why Washington state can't sell its legal marijuana

"Why doesn't anyone want me?"
"Why doesn't anyone want me?"
David Ryder / Getty Images News

Washington state had a decidedly odd problem: more legal marijuana than its 7 million residents want to smoke.

In July 2014, the state's legal marijuana market launched to a shortage of pot for recreational purposes.

Five months later, Washington appears to have the opposite problem: the Associated Press reported that a big harvest from the fall has flooded the market — and prices are plummeting as a result. As of Thursday, state data reported by the AP showed licensed growers had harvested 31,000 pounds of pot. But Washington's relatively few legal marijuana shops have sold less than a fifth of that.

Why isn't recreational pot selling? Hilary Bricken, an attorney who represents several marijuana businesses in the state, said the big problem is still competition from the medical marijuana industry and the black and gray markets, where people can get pot even cheaper from friends growing for medical or other purposes.

"One of my retailers, who's the second retailer in Seattle, said, 'My clientele is first-time users and tourists,'" Bricken said.

The medical market in Washington state is almost entirely unregulated. This makes medical marijuana shops more common and accessible, since dispensaries can open up without state approval. The pot sold in medical dispensaries also tends to be cheaper, because it doesn't face the high taxes seen on the recreational side.

"I don't know a lot of people who are going to drive 20 miles to get beer, let alone buy their pot," Bricken said. "It's really easy to get your medical card for a couple hundred bucks and then get really cheap pot after that."

There are 270 licensed growers in Washington state, but only about 85 open recreational stores, according to the AP. The state expects about 100 more shops to open in the next few months, which could allow the recreational industry to compete more easily in terms of accessibility. But the licensing process has been fairly slow, due to a litany of strict regulations.

State lawmakers are also considering legislation that would bring the medical market in line with regulations and possibly taxes. Until then, the recreational market is very likely going to remain outmatched.