Legislators grapple with merging medical and recreational marijuana

Christopher Lopaze, Bainbridge Island Review

Washington’s first marijuana retail license was recently issued, but legislators are still trying to reconcile the medical and recreational-marijuana markets before stores open this summer.

In 2012, Washington voters passed Initiative 502 legalizing marijuana for adult personal use, as did Colorado, becoming the first states in the nation to do so.

Because marijuana is still an illegal controlled substance under federal law, there was uncertainty concerning how the federal government would respond.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a clarifying memo last August, which said the department would not challenge states’ legalization laws if they enacted strict and effective regulations.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, are sponsoring similar measures, Senate Bill 5887 and House Bill 2149, respectively, to merge the two systems.

“We can control our destiny, or we can let the federal government control our destiny,” Rivers said.

Cody’s bill passed the House 67-29, and has been referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Rivers’s bill is expected to be up for a vote in the Senate soon.

Both bills would reduce the number of plants patients can grow, lower the possession limit, create a patient-recognition system, and eliminate collective gardens, which allow multiple patients to grow a total of 45 marijuana plants in the same location together for medical use.

Recreational-marijuana stores would be able to apply for an optional medical endorsement. This would allow stores to sell to customers 18 and older who possess a valid patient-recognition card, and require the store to carry products appropriate for medical use.

The Senate bill would provide those who possess a valid patient-recognition card a sales tax exemption, and retailers with an endorsement would be exempt from the 25 percent excise tax collected during transactions with customers.

Rivers said in a perfect world there would be two separate, regulated systems, but the state has to act in some way to comply with the federal mandate to avoid federal intervention. She said this bill is only a first step, and lawmakers can tweak the system later if it fails to meet the needs of patients.

Washington voters legalized medical marijuana in 1998 with the passage of Initiative 692. Twenty other states, including the District of Columbia, have a medical-marijuana system in place.

Colorado’s medical-marijuana system was approved in 2000. Colorado allows medical dispensaries and recreational stores to operate separately, but they both require a license. Patients with qualifying medical conditions have to register with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to receive an identification card for legal access to medical marijuana.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board, along with representatives from the Department of Health and the Department of Revenue, submitted a proposal to the Legislature about how the two systems should interact, and recommended the medical-marijuana market should be merged with the recreational-marijuana business.

The board’s proposed solution is being considered by the legislators, and drawing fire from some medical-marijuana advocates.

“We believe they can exist separately, and should,” said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a national organization aiming to advance safe and legal access to medical marijuana. “Patients have different needs than those in adult-use community.”

The group has a state campaign called Health Before Happy Hour. The campaign opposes many of the provisions in the current legislation, and instead recommends a parallel set of regulations.

Hermes said he is concerned the recreational market will not provide the specific plants necessary to treat certain medical conditions, and won’t be affordable for medical-marijuana patients.

“It’s critically important to retain these programs,” he said.

Steve Sarich, the executive director for the Cannabis Action Coalition, a group lobbying for the rights of medical-marijuana patients, said they aren’t against some regulation, but they are opposed to the taxation of medicine.

Sarich said the state is ignoring the needs of medical-marijuana patients patients in favor of more tax revenue.

“If you take away my medicine,” Sarich said. “You’ll do more than” make me angry. “You’ll kill me.”

He also said creating a patient registry will put patients’ confidentiality at risk, and leave them open to unfair discrimination by the government and law enforcement.

According to the Liquor Control Board, the price of marijuana will likely increase considerably compared to prices at medical dispensaries now, but the market should drive prices down eventually through competition. The 25 percent excise tax on each step of the process, production, processing, and retail, is one reason prices are expected to spike.

Medical marijuana-dispensaries would have to close once state stores opened, unless they receive a marijuana retail license.

The board has limited the number of stores to 334, more than the 2,200 retail license applications they received. They will hold a retail license lottery in the upcoming two weeks.