Big changes could be coming to how Washington state regulates medical pot

Jake Thomas, The Inlander

The number keeps growing. Nearly 100 bills related to marijuana have been introduced in Olympia so far this legislative session. One of them, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center, seeks to address a glaring problem in Washington: Medical marijuana — legal since 1998 — is untaxed and unregulated and is undermining the tightly controlled recreational market that was created by the passage of I-502 in 2012.

Although there's a Democratic bill aimed at the problem, Rivers' bill has been advancing through legislative committees and seems the most viable in the Republican-led majority coalition caucus that runs the state Senate. The bill, still being tinkered with as of press time, would place the state medicinal system under the auspices of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which currently oversees the recreational market. The idea is drawing pushback from medical patients and advocates.

"It's not fun and games for us, to be bopping around on a Friday night getting high," says Kari Boiter, Washington state coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy organization. "This is life and death."

The bill would change the name of the state Liquor Control Board to the "Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board" and would effectively shut down current medical dispensaries. In their place, the bill would create a medical marijuana endorsement that would allow pot shops to sell untaxed medicinal versions of the drug. This arrangement is like Colorado's "dual-use" shops that serve both markets, and the legislation would still allow stand-alone medical marijuana stores.

But Boiter and others are quick to point out that the recreational system hasn't always worked as intended, and has struggled with high prices and unstable supply. She's concerned that the liquor board is not qualified to oversee medical pot, and patients will have a hard time accessing their medicine as a result.

There are appreciable differences between a medical pot dispensary and a recreational store, says Boiter. Dispensaries specialize in strains of pot meant to be therapeutic. One of the more widely known strains of medical pot is "Charlotte's Web," a highly sought-after variety that's been used to treat children with epilepsy. The strain, which was featured on CNN, is low on THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana that gets users stoned. But it's high on cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive substance that has medicinal properties.

Dispensaries carry carefully crafted concentrates and tinctures that are centered around medical needs. Many also sell straight cannabidiol, which is used to treat cancer, neurological disorders and other ailments.

Boiter points out that staff at medical dispensaries can give out advice to clients about what products might be best suited for their ailments, which is strictly prohibited in recreational shops.

Jenn Lorz, co-owner of the Northside Alternative Wellness Center medical marijuana dispensary in Spokane, says that she sees nervous patients enter her store who have been diagnosed with cancer or other ailments. These patients have never smoked pot and need an environment that's centered around their medical needs.

"You can't just make these patients go buy their medicine at the liquor store," she says of the idea of recreational facilities serving medical patients. "It's supposed to be a community where you can go in and discuss your problem."

For people like Lorz, medical marijuana patients have a fundamentally different relationship with pot. For them, she says, "this plant is medicine." The idea of the liquor board overseeing medicine is so objectionable that during a recent hearing on the bill, one woman testified that she would rather go to the black market than to a recreational store for medical pot.

But almost everyone agrees that the current state of the medical market is untenable. Lawmakers continue to worry that the highly taxed recreational market is being undermined by the untaxed medical dispensaries.

Some local jurisdictions have become so concerned about unregulated medical marijuana that they have banned dispensaries outright. Spokane Valley, citing a public health crisis, placed a moratorium on new marijuana businesses in December.

John Davis, the executive director of the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, says that there may be some justified fears about the current dispensary system being eliminated with the a stroke of the governor's pen. But he says that the Liquor Control Board taking over the regulation of all pot, medical and otherwise, is politically expedient, given that the agency has the most experience regulating pot.

"The Liquor Control Board," he says, "while it may not be the best fit, it is the most likely."