It still is pretty extraordinary to realize that Washington state is marching steadily forward to legalizing retail sales of marijuana early next year. It will happen unless there is unexpected intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Last Thursday, the state’s Liquor Control Board issued new draft rules for regulating these sales. In one more indication that there is great fascination in this subject, the board tweeted Friday morning that the rules were downloaded 3,373 times in their first 19 hours on the agency website – and this “might be a record for interest in government rules.”

The switch from an illicit substance regulated only by the informal marketplace to a heavily regulated consumer product that any adult can buy is unprecedented. Even when alcoholic beverages became lawful again with repeal of Prohibition, there still were many people who knew all about what they were selling and buying, and how to go about it. When it comes to marijuana, in many cases the most knowledgeable individuals have until recently been criminals.

This fact plays a major role in Washington’s new rules. After substantial lobbying at initial scoping meetings, the liquor board is planning to ease the way for relatively low-level (or careful) pot dealers and users to gain an official foothold in the new legal marketplace. Applicants for sales licenses will have to submit to criminal background checks and fingerprinting, but only felony convictions will disqualify a person from applying for a marijuana store.

Still to come is a decision about how many licenses to allow in each county, likely to be based on population. If there are more applications than licenses, a random drawing will be held.

A partial survey of current liquor license holders in Pacific County found no one interested in taking on what will surely be a controversial and potentially problematic new product. But marijuana shops need not be housed by liquor sellers.

All this comes at a time when the Organization of American States – heavily weighted toward Latin American nations – is considering an end to the blanket prohibition on recreational drugs. Looking at the social destruction wrought in their own nations by criminal drug gangs in light of the moves by Washington state and Colorado to legalize marijuana, the OAS perceives a need to change the game to one that focuses more on health.

It still remains to be seen whether open access to an additional popular drug, marijuana, will clarify matters or merely lead to more intoxication in our rural areas that already struggle with much alcohol and drug addiction. It appears likely as the months tick by toward implementation of Washington’s law that we will have a front seat to observe and participate in a big experiment.