Don’t treat medical-marijuana patients like recreational users

Steph Sherer, Seattle Times (Op-Ed)

The recreational retail model for selling marijuana in Washington state will not meet the needs of medical-marijuana patients, writes guest columnist Steph Sherer.

WASHINGTON Gov. Jay Inslee and the state’s legislators are poised to make history as they devise a plan to harmonize their medical cannabis program with one that allows anyone 21 or older to buy and possess marijuana. What Washington lawmakers decide will shape how patients are treated elsewhere in the nation.

Inslee has shown courage implementing Initiative 502, pushing the federal government through letters and meetings to accept his state’s new adult-use marijuana law. As a congressman, he fought to protect the medical cannabis program in his state from federal interference.

Now that same determination is needed to support the spirit of the 1998 medical-marijuana state initiative that created safe access.

Some in Washington have suggested that patients who enjoy the protections of the current program don’t really need it — that they can get their needs met within a recreational retail model. But that ignores the challenges facing those with the most serious medical conditions, denies what works in the state’s medical cannabis program and overlooks the strengths of previous legislation.

We know policymakers are grappling with how to satisfy the new federal guidelines for states seeking to regulate marijuana distribution. The Department of Justice wants to see tight control, and the local U.S. attorney, Jenny Durkan, has said the current medical-marijuana system in Washington is “untenable” because it lacks sufficient regulation.

That’s because Inslee’s predecessor, Gov. Chris Gregoire, bowed to threats from Durkan and line-item vetoed the sensible legislation on distribution the Legislature passed in 2011. Senate Bill 5073 contained the types of controls the Department of Justice now says it wants to see. It only remains for the Legislature to dust it off and send it back to the governor’s desk, now that there’s a champion of patients’ rights sitting behind it.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board is finalizing its recommendations for the Legislature. A sensible bill would establish a tightly regulated system of separate local distribution so patients can get the types of cannabis that work for their specific conditions and freely exchange information about therapeutic use. The state should protect personal cultivation that enables access for the most needy.

A proposed bill should also establish rules for law enforcement that better shield qualified patients from arrest and prosecution, conserving tax dollars and law enforcement resources, while sparing patients undue hardship.

To get there, Inslee and his fellow lawmakers will have to see past the misinformation that always circulates around this issue. That misinformation includes claims that 95 percent of patients don’t really have treatable medical conditions, despite their doctors’ determination otherwise. Some even say that cannabis isn’t really medicine, despite the leading-edge research on how it can treat chronic pain, which is being done at the University of Washington on a grant from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Ask the patients who have done better because they had cannabis to bolster their battles with cancer, AIDS or chronic pain. They’ll tell you that the system Washington voters created 15 years ago has the flexibility to meet the needs of even the most seriously ill; the new recreational model does not.

I met with those patients in Washington state during a series of stakeholder meetings Americans for Safe Access held late last month. They all share the hope that the changes that have been proposed are just a start, that their elected representatives will recognize their constituents’ needs and seize the opportunity to enact a fair and responsible system that respects the hard-won rights of patients.

But even if the Liquor Board takes the easy way out, state lawmakers know better. They can’t pretend those who depend on cannabis to treat their medical conditions are the same as those who enjoy passing a joint at a concert.

Steph Sherer is executive director of Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for medical cannabis patients based in Washington, D.C.