Medical marijuana regulations locked up in partisan gridlock as session nears scheduled end

Conor King Devitt, The Oregonian

A revenue disagreement in Washington’s House has people in the medical marijuana community worried that lawmakers will fail to pass regulating legislation this year -- leaving patients at the mercy of the federal government.

Senate Bill 5887, which would add licensing and regulation to the state’s largely unregulated medical marijuana system, has stalled in the House due to a disagreement over what Washington should do with tax revenue from its new recreational marijuana market.

The bill to regulate medical marijuana passed in the Senate by a 34-15 vote Saturday. But when the bill reached the House, Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, drafted an amendment that would appropriate 10 percent of recreational market revenue from taxes between a grower and a processor and 20 percent of revenue from taxes between a retailer and a consumer to local governments. 

Initiative 502 put in place a 25 percent excise tax on each of the three levels of distribution for the recreational system; from producer to processor, processor to retailer and retailer to consumer.

Condotta’s amendment mimics a bill he introduced earlier in the session that failed to get out of committee. It is intended to motivate individual counties to lift bans and moratoriums on the recreational marijuana market.

Because Senate Bill 5887 amends I-502 within two years of its passage, two-thirds of each chamber’s membership must vote for it. That means 33 votes in the Senate and 66 in the House -- and it means the bill needs bipartisan support to get out of the Democrat-controlled House.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and chairman of the House Finance Committee, has said his caucus will not support Condotta’s change.

Condotta said Republicans will not support the bill without his amendment.

With the legislative session scheduled to end Thursday night, it now appears unlikely lawmakers will pass Senate Bill 5887. That would leave Washington, on the eve of implementing its heavily regulated recreational marijuana program, with an unregulated medical marijuana system that the federal government has warned is untenable.

Kari Boiter, the Washington coordinator for the national medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said not passing any medical marijuana legislation puts patients in the crosshairs of the federal government. 

“We worked really hard to get bipartisan support for a bill that would work for us and work for them,” Boiter said, referring to medical patients and the federal government. “And we’re the ones left in legal limbo because (the lawmakers) can’t do their job. If we can compromise when our health is at stake they should be able to compromise.”

Carlyle said Democrats are working on separate legislation that would satisfy the federal request for progress in the medical system.

“We are working to trim-down the bill so that it is not a two-thirds vote and does not modify the initiative,” Carlyle said. “It’s with the policy goal of having some regulatory structure around the medical marijuana market.”

Medical marijuana activists spent months testifying at public hearings and compromising on legislation. So it was worrying, Boiter said, that the result of all that effort might be scrapped in favor of an amendment written 24 hours before lawmakers are scheduled to go home. She expressed doubt that a bill with little input from the medical community would provide patients with the means to affordably access the medicine they need.

According to Boiter, a medical marijuana patient herself, the growing collectives currently in place in Washington allow many patients to receive the marijuana they need at a reduced and affordable cost.

While earlier versions of 5887 gradually eliminated collective gardens, the final legislation that Senators approved allowed up to four-person group grows. This provision in combination with other amendments reconciled the bill enough that some members of the medical marijuana community, including Americans for Safe Access, decided to support it.

But with the bill now stalled in partisan gridlock, medical marijuana activists are worried they are again stuck between two potentially harmful alternatives: one being an unregulated system at risk of raid from the federal government; the other a stringently-regulated marketplace that prevents patients from acquiring medical marijuana at an affordable cost.

Neither party seemed willing to yield on the revenue debate. Carlyle said he did not want to take money away from the dedicated marijuana fund, large portions of which are dedicated to the state health plan, the state general fund and the Department of Health’s substance abuse program.

“We have no data to indicate what the fiscal impact on local governments, cities and counties, is going to be,” Carlyle said. “And until we have accurate, meaningful data, I’m unenthusiastic about sharing revenue. Once we have that data I’m very open to that conversation.”

Condotta said it was imperative to give every Washington county incentive to abide by I-502, noting that Colorado’s new recreational marijuana system appropriates 50 percent of its revenue to cities and counties.

“If you don’t have a fully-implemented 502 system that’s geographically distributed, how do you integrate medical marijuana into something that doesn’t exist?” Condotta said.

If House Democrats managed to pass a stripped-down version of SB 5887 through a simple majority, it would still need to be reconciled in the Majority Coalition-controlled Senate.

Both Condotta and Boiter acknowledged that another bill currently awaiting a vote in the House might be the solution. Senate Bill 6542 would establish a state cannabis industry coordinating committee, bringing together representatives from the legislature, state agencies, the medical marijuana community, the Association of Washington Counties and the upcoming recreational industry. That diverse group would be tasked with planning a a marijuana system that works agriculturally, economically, recreationally and medically.

Both Boiter and Condotta tentatively said they thought the Senate bill would most likely demonstrate enough progress to keep the federal government out of the conversation, and it would allow medical patients to continue to take advantage of the current system in the short-term.

SB 6542 passed out of the Senate by a 40-8 vote on March 8. Its future in the House remains uncertain.