State lawmakers are poised to make significant changes to the state’s medical-marijuana system. Advocates and patients have concerns.

Bob Young, Seattle Times

State lawmakers are poised to make significant changes to Washington’s medical-marijuana system. And the changes likely will come from two bills that have emerged as the vehicles for reconciling the largely unregulated medical system with the state’s new, stiffly taxed and regulated recreational system.

One is sponsored by a Seattle Democrat, the other by a Clark County Republican. The two are trying to meet patients’ needs but also to tighten a system that Jenny Durkan, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, called “not tenable.”

Patients would possess less and grow less pot under the bills. They’d be required to join a state registry. The bills also would tighten medical authorizations and eliminate collective gardens and dispensaries, steering patients into new recreational stores approved to sell medical products, or possibly to state-licensed medical outlets.

“This is a bipartisan, bicameral effort,” Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said of her bill and a similar one by Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle.

That is the problem, according to some patients and advocates. The bills likely would make adequate, affordable access to medical marijuana more difficult, they say.

“I’m trying to help lawmakers understand legitimate concerns and amend as many pieces as possible,” said Kari Boiter, a patient active in Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the largest national medical-marijuana advocacy group.

Boiter, 33, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects skin, joints and blood-vessel walls. That isn’t a qualifying condition under state law. She’s authorized for medical marijuana because of intractable pain and was taking prescription painkillers before, which she said made her “highly dysfunctional.”

Boiter said she wants a regulated system for medical marijuana. But in their effort to keep medical marijuana from competing with the new recreational system, she is concerned that state officials are not putting “health before happy hour.”

Registry fears

Problems start with the proposed Department of Health registry, she said.

Patients would have to join it to get a medical-marijuana card and related benefits such as arrest protection, tax exemptions and ability to grow at home.

Some people, such as lawyers, teachers and parents, may feel uncomfortable registering, Boiter said, for privacy reasons. Others fear registry information could be turned over to law enforcement.

She prefers a voluntary registry with incentives to join. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, proposed such a registry in her own bill to regulate medical marijuana. But Kohl-Welles, who has been the Legislature’s chief champion of medical marijuana, is in the minority party, and Republicans favored Rivers’ bill over hers.

In Kohl-Welles’ proposal, if patients register they’d get benefits such as arrest protection, which means if they get stopped by a cop for possessing a lawful amount of weed, they’d show their registry card and go free.

Kohl-Welles said she likely would offer amendments to Rivers’ bill, including a voluntary registry, but acknowledged that change is coming in some form to medical marijuana. “It can be harmed as well as helped. It’s going to depend on the legislation that passes,” she said.

Plant and possession limits in the Rivers and Cody bills also are too restrictive, Boiter said. Both would limit patients to three ounces of dried marijuana and six plants. That’s not enough for patients who tend to use large amounts of pot — particularly those who don’t smoke but use concentrated extracts, which require a lot of raw pot to produce infused oils and edibles.

The current system allows patients to possess 24 ounces of pot and 15 plants. Rivers’ bill would allow up to eight ounces and 15 plants, provided a health-care professional authorized the additional amount.

While current limits were developed in a thorough public process, as advocates note, they’re based on patients having no other source or supply, state officials have said. New recreational stores, expected to open in June, should give patients a reliable backup supply if the new limits don’t provide enough, officials believe.

Colorado’s highly regulated medical system allows patients two ounces and six plants. Of the 20 states with medical marijuana, only Oregon allows patients as much dried marijuana as Washington. Oregon allows more plants, 24, but only six of those can be mature at any time.

Some patients don’t have confidence that proposed recreational stores in Washington, catering to consumers looking for a buzz, will serve their medical needs, which sometimes call for low THC, the chief intoxicant in marijuana, and high CBD, the chemicals believed to have more pain-relieving qualities.

The state will license 334 retail stores around the state. Quite a few stores are proposed for cities and counties with bans and moratoria on legal pot businesses. That leaves patients wondering how far they’d have to travel to a store, and if the nearest stores will want to sell medical products.

If stores do want to sell medical weed, the Rivers and Cody bills call for them to obtain a state endorsement to do so. The bills, though, would create additional mechanisms to try to assure adequate access and supply for patients. Rivers would call for the state to give a preference in licensing to stores that intend to be solely medical. Cody would allow up to 5 percent of retailers to serve only medical customers. Both call for state studies to ensure medical needs are being met by new stores.

Collective gardens

Proposals for home-growing and collective gardens also are problematic, patients say.

Ryan Day, a Thurston County resident, grows marijuana low in psychoactive chemicals, to calm his 5-year-old son’s epileptic seizures. Day said he knows families who don’t have the space to grow the plants. He would like to help them, but can’t jeopardize his family by doing it illegally. That’s where the current law’s allowance for collective gardens, with up to 10 patients, comes in handy. Day can grow for other families in a collective system.

But collective gardens provided the loophole that allowed some 200 dispensaries to sprout in Seattle. Dispensaries operate on the premise that each patient who walks in becomes part of the collective while in the dispensary. When patients leave the dispensary they are replaced in the collective’s rotating membership by the next patients to enter.

Both Rivers and Cody would eliminate collective gardens next year, after new retail stores have opened, hoping patients migrate to the stores. Rivers, however, would let up to four participants join a group to grow six plants each. The group would have to register with the state, be located at one of the participant’s homes, and no money could be exchanged; contributions would have to be in labor.

Day prefers Rivers’ approach. But he is still worried about eliminating collective gardens altogether.

At some point, he said, he may need to supplement his growing because of a bad harvest or failed plants. Will the new recreational stores — expected to open in June — carry the special strains of pot his sons need?

“Until we know that 502 stores carry the product and have the capacity to serve all patients, I think we need to allow the existing system to remain in place as a backstop or primary means of access for patients,” he said.

Proposals to tighten authorizations also could hurt veterans, according to some advocates. The Rivers and Cody bills require that authorizations come from principal health-care providers or specialists referred by principal providers.

Most patients who served in the military rely on the Veterans Health Administration as their principal providers. But the VA can’t recommend medical marijuana because of the federal prohibition against all forms of pot, said Michael Krawitz, director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. Nor could VA doctors recommend a specialist to do so, Krawitz said, “because the VA can’t initiate such a conversation.”

Douglas Hiatt, a longtime medical-marijuana advocate, believes the state’s efforts to keep medical marijuana from competing with the recreational system created by Initiative 502, and eroding its tax revenues, are devastating to the medical system.

“This entire thing is about money. They are worried about propping up a 502 system that may never come and may never work, instead of worrying about the fact that people need medicine,” said Hiatt, a criminal defense attorney.

Rivers said she couldn’t disagree more.

“It is this kind of fear-mongering that whips patients into a frenzy,” she said.