The state has more legal weed than its stoners want to buy.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • The state has more legal weed than its stoners want to buy.

Remember those early days of legal weed in Washington, when the stuff was $20 or $25 a gram and stores were closing because they were literally out of weed?

Those days are officially over. Prices in recreational stores have been falling with every passing month as more shops open. But something else is going on, too: a huge surplus of pot.

It’s crazy what we’re selling weed for, it’s so cheap,” says Ian Eisenberg, the owner of Uncle Ike’s, a recreational store at 23rd and Union. (Prices at his store range from $10 to $23 a gram, which is competitive with most medical stores, though still higher than black-market estimates.) “Wholesale prices are literally half of what they were in September.”

Exciting for us, less so for the guys growing all that weed and trying to sell it to stores. Since the launch of the market last spring, more and more growers have been licensed (336 statewide, to be exact), and many of them have finally harvested their outdoor grows. That's resulted in way more pot that's ready to sell than is actually selling.

Steve Walser—an Eastern Washington farmer who’s spent the last 40 years growing organic fruits and vegetables and now has a grow op licensed under I-502—noticed a “flush of product” around Halloween and started wondering just how much was out there. So he filed a records request with the Washington State LIquor Control Board (WSLCB), and the numbers he got back were staggering.

According to the state's monthly breakdowns showing grams harvested and grams sold in the state through the end of November, growers have produced almost 10 times the amount of pot that's been sold in stores. From June through the end of November, producers grew about 11,500,000 grams of marijuana, and stores, which opened in early July, sold about 1,172,000 grams through November.* (The WSLCB didn't include any harvest numbers for December, but included part of the month's sales, totaling about 118,300 grams. Even if growers didn't produce a single additional gram during that time, their totals would still be nearly nine times the sales.)

Some of this has to do with timing: This fall was the first harvest of outdoor crops grown over the summer, which means the harvest rates mushroomed from almost 900,000 grams in September to more than 3 million in October and 6.5 million in November. Because of that, growth in production is outpacing growth in sales, which have climbed steadily from about 233,000 grams in September to 321,000 in October and 384,000 in November. Production will slow down now that we've reached the winter, but indoor growers are still ticking along, and the WSLCB continues to license growers all over the state.

The surplus is no surprise to the WSLCB, according to board spokesperson Brian Smith.

“The market is still maturing," he says. "Not everyone is going to make it… We knew the supply system would be pretty robust.”

The WSLCB regularly updates an online list of sales data, but doesn’t publish details like this—details about how much pot is being grown and sold in grams. Used to having a “plethora of data” about other crops, Walser says he wanted the marijuana numbers for his own business planning and to share. While he says he feels financially comfortable, other hopeful pot entrepreneurs are “pouring their whole life savings into this… expecting a good market coming out the other end when the reality is, for the grower, the market is bad.”

Not our problem, says the WSLCB.

“I don’t know that we’re responsible for telling people how to run their business, and that’s what this is,” Smith says. He cautioned against a “gold rush mentality” among some in the market.

“They don’t owe anyone anything other than the straight scoop,” Walser says. “Publish it. How hard is it to get that information out?” (To be clear, the WSLCB makes this data available to people who file records requests, like Walser did, but he wants it posted regularly.)

Back when it was making the rules for this new market, the liquor board put some limits on how much marijuana licensed producers were allowed to grow "to meet initial consumer demand without over-supplying." That was in part to prevent intervention from the Feds, who've warned that legal pot better not spill over into other states where it's still illegal. But now, even with all this extra weed out there—which has got to make it tempting for growers to look outside the legal market for buyers—Smith says the liquor board is confident the tracking system it requires growers to use would give the state a heads up if any of it "went missing."

On his 640-acre Eastern Washington farm, Walser has piled his bumper crop into two-and-a-half-pound bags, flushed those with nitrogen (to keep the bud from oxidizing), and vacuum sealed them before putting them in a dark, cool concrete “bunker.”

“Under those conditions,” he says, “it keeps for years.”

* It's possible the liquor board's harvest data comes from the weight of the pot before it's dried, which could make the discrepancy between pot produced and pot sold somewhat smaller. Still, everyone agrees there's a significant surplus of some amount. I've asked the liquor board to tell me whether its harvest data comes from the pre-dried harvest, and will update when I hear. UPDATE: The liquor board, having looked into this, says there is definitely a surplus but that it's not able to determine exactly how much of a surplus there is because of all the various things that happen to harvested pot (drying, trimming, processing into edibles or concentrates) and all the various ways our state's legal pot products end up being measured.