Hundreds expected in Olympia as lawmakers weigh medical pot

Gene Johnson, Associated Press

The Cannabis Patient Protection Act found little support among cannabis patients Thursday as lawmakers considered the proposal for overhauling the state's medical marijuana system.

The measure, introduced by leading Republican Sen. Ann Rivers, is one of at least two major bills that would reconcile the legally dubious, unregulated medical market with Washington's heavily taxed recreational weed.

The proposal would allow for stand-alone medical marijuana stores that can't sell dried pot — only edibles and concentrates. It also would require product testing that's at least as stringent as that of state-licensed recreational marijuana.

Many bureaucrats, lawmakers and licensed pot businesses say they're worried that the lesser-taxed or untaxed medical shops, which have proliferated across the state in the past few years, are undercutting sales at recreational stores and thus threatening the state's legal pot system. They also say they're concerned about patient safety.

"My primary objective is to provide safe, affordable patient access for medical marijuana," Rivers, of La Center, said as she introduced the bill at a hearing of the Senate Health Care Committee.

The bill was drawn up with input from the Washington CannaBusiness Association, an industry group for recreational pot businesses.

Several provisions are raising objections from patients. Among them: that medical shops wouldn't sell dried bud; that the state would dictate the levels of various compounds in marijuana sold for medical use; that high excise taxes could make the products unaffordable; that patients wouldn't be allowed to grow as many plants at home; and that it would create a registry of patients and caregivers.

Erin Palmer, of Lacey, told the committee she uses marijuana to ease chronic nausea from a genetic disorder. She's on a fixed income of $874 per month and said she can't afford to shop at unregulated medical dispensaries, let alone highly taxed shops. She said she buys marijuana directly from a grower.

Michael Mazzeti, of Okanogan, said he opposes creating a registry of patients because patients don't have to join a registry to get access to other medications.

And Jason Duck, of Hoquiam, said he uses marijuana to help deal with lingering injuries, including failing eyesight, stemming from an improvised bomb explosion in Afghanistan, where he served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. He grows cannabis but worries his supply would be curtailed, forcing him back on prescription medications at a greater cost to taxpayers who cover his benefits.

"My wife has seen me wake up in the middle of the night thinking I'm on fire — I've unfortunately hurt her, thinking she was attacking me," he said after the hearing. "Now I smoke, and I sleep at night."

Several recreational marijuana growers and retailers testified in favor of the bill, saying it would put them on a level playing field with medical dispensaries.

Vicki Christophersen, the CannaBusiness group's executive director, wrote to the committee that allowing patients to grow six plants at home — less than the 15 they're currently allowed — is too generous. She suggested the limit be set at three.

The other major proposal for reconciling the medical and recreational systems introduced so far is by Seattle Democratic Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who would do away with separate medical dispensaries and instead allow recreational stores to sell medical products. That approach also concerns some patients, who say they don't want to go into a recreational store to get medicine.

Rivers' bill is considered to be a work in progress, and several medical marijuana advocates said they hope to see the final product blend the best ideas from both measures.

"Everyone wants to see medical cannabis regulated — no one is arguing that," said Steph Sherer, executive director of the medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access. "The challenge is to keep patients in the center of this debate."