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In 2012, the voters of WA approved I-502, a bill to legalize and tax cannabis for recreational use. The voters were promised high tax revenues by the campaign for the state and that the medical cannabis laws would be left alone, but recent statements from I-502 consultants and the Liquor Control Board (LCB) may be putting that promise in jeopardy.

As Washington’s LCB moves forward with plans to fully implement I-502 and open retail stores across the state, some have suggested that medical cannabis be folded into the recreational system, even though it is still in the development stages. As the original intent of the state's medical cannabis laws were grounded in compassion and not a desire for increased tax revenue, patients and advocates are concerned that the LCB is not the appropriate entity to oversee the state's medical cannabis program.

Specific concerns about folding the medical cannabis program into the I-502 scheme include:

  • Increased taxation of medical cannabis, even though herbal medicines are not subject to tax in WA
  • Concentrated preparations of cannabis could be restricted
  • A decrease in the availability of non-psychoactive preparations
  • Retail stores under 502 are not legally permitted to discuss the therapeutic benefits of cannabis
  • Patients continue to lack legal protections from arrest, something even recreational users are now entitled to

As a way to address these concerns, advocates have created the "Health Before Happy Hour" Campaign and are urging Governor Inslee and state lawmakers to pass legislation that maintains the original compassionate intent of I-692.

"Washington was one of the first states in the nation to recognize that patients under a physician's care have the right to use medical marijuana," said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer, who will be facilitating next week's stakeholder meetings. "The needs of this vulnerable population are distinctly different from the wants of recreational users, and it's vital that elected officials understand the difference."

Among the work group’s proposed changes:

  1. Ban all personal cultivation and collective gardens
  2. Lower possession limit from 24 ounces to 3 ounces
  3. Eliminate the affirmative defense for proving medical necessity above possession limits
  4. Void all current doctors’ recommendations and require new evaluations under harder-to-meet definitions of qualifying conditions
  5. Restrict medical professionals to eliminate specialty cannabis practices and make recommendations equivalent to prescribing opiates
  6. Require patients to register with the state and give law enforcement access to registry
  7. Eliminate petitioning to add conditions.

These are all bad ideas that undermine patient well-being, but the worst is the elimination of personal cultivation and collective gardens. Patients would be thrown into a commercial system that prevents patients from preserving plant genetics and has steep excise taxes added at every step. For patients with conditions that only respond to specific strains, preventing them from growing the type of plant that helps them risks losing much of the therapeutic benefit. For low-income patients or those whose treatment requires more medicine, this can mean loss of access because of exorbitant expense, as producers add 25% tax, processors add 25% and retailers add 25% tax on sales. The only concession to cannabis being medicine (which is not taxed) is a proposed exemption for the additional sales and use taxes collected at point of sale.

Lowering the possession limit and eliminating the affirmative defense for patients who can demonstrate their treatment regime requires more than that limit make little sense except in the context of banning cultivation, something that disproportionately affects the indigent and most seriously ill.

Restricting the ability of medical professionals to recommend cannabis as a treatment option because that patient is now going to be entitled to buy cannabis without seeing a doctor is just silly. Since there will be no restriction but age for recreational purchases, why does the state need you to objectively prove you’re experiencing chronic back pain to use it medically? And since that safe herbal remedy for that back pain will be available over the counter to any adult, if you’re a doctor recommending it, why will the state now consider that recommendation equivalent to prescribing the most dangerous opiate painkillers? 

The lack of logic in these proposals would be laughable if the health and welfare of suffering citizens were not at stake. But it is, which makes them simply shameful.

The full text of the state's work group recommendations is at http://www.scribd.com/doc/177925676/MMJ-Draft-Recommendations-10-21-13.