Recreational Vs. Medical Pot Issues Draw Battle Lines in Tacoma Washington

Marguerite Arnold, Main Street

The city of Tacoma, Wash. has now offered up the next serious challenge to I-502, the voter initiative to legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 in the nation's second "recreational market." The city is now threatening existing dispensaries in the city to comply with recreational only guidelines, shut down or face potential prosecution.

This also leaves medical patients without safe, regulated outlets for lower-priced medical use marijuana.

Despite moving into the recreational market start in July, the Washington state "recreational only" market created by voter initiative has been plagued by controversies and legal challenges since the first month of operations, not to mention in political debates leading up to passage in the first place. This is just the next in a series of what is expected to be ongoing legal challenges as many of the problems created by this market model continue to fester, unresolved.

"There were concerns from the get go with I-502 about the impact on medical cannabis patients," said Kari Boiter, Washington state coordinator for Americans for Safe Access (ASA).

It is hardly the first unintended consequence of a legalization initiative that was heavily criticized at the time of proposal and passage for these issues and more by the patient advocacy community. That still includes the draconian drugged driving provisions included in the statute. The DUI provision that penalizes drivers based on the amount of active THC in their system, rather than impairment" is just one problem highlighted by Boiter and others.

"The zero tolerance DUI provision for anyone under 21 was particularly concerning because medical conditions don't discriminate based on age and there was no legal mechanism to protect patients with HIV, cancer, epilepsy and other severe health conditions in the event that they were wrongfully charged," she said.

Boiter's group, ASA, has been the sole national group in Washington state to highlight these concerns on an ongoing basis and advocate in D.C. on these and a host of other pressing problems including the prosecution of the Kettle Falls 5.

"I feel it's safe to say that voters who passed I-502 never intended to make it more difficult or more expensive for legitimate patients to get the products they rely upon," she added. "And certainly, nobody wanted law enforcement to resume criminal prosecutions for medical marijuana."

Such critiques were largely discounted by the coalition of legal groups, state politicians and others who promoted the approach in Washington state as a "brand new" way to deal with regulation and oversight.

Specifically the rallying cry of the reform movement that carried the day was "regulate and tax like alcohol."

Kevin Oliver, executive director of Washington NORML, is one who defends the intent of Washington state legislators in terms of market consolidation.

"There are several municipalities around the state that have moratoriums or bans in place for both medical and 502 licensed businesses," he said. "However, in regards to medical marijuana specifically, the situation that exists has arisen because, when juxtaposed to functioning, legally regulated and taxed 502 businesses, the unregulated and untaxed commercial medical business model looks less attractive to legislatures and regulators."

And that is exactly the larger problem.

The idea in Washington state that was also sold to voters was that the existing medical use infrastructure would be left alone and gradually grandfathered in over time (next year was the stated date so far) as the state built a regulatory infrastructure around the rec market first. The plan wasn't to "consolidate" existing medical dispensaries under commercial umbrellas. This new development in Tacoma is one that many feared would materialize as recreational tax dollars began to roll in to starved municipal coffers and municipal leaders made decisions in favor of the same to the detriment of the medical market and those they serve. 

As Oliver sees it, this is an "inevitability" that serves the best interests of everyone.

"Pragmatically, at this point, supporting an amendment to the law that does not allow municipalities to opt out of 502 would be best for Washington state's bottom line while at the same time guaranteeing access to quality marijuana at the retail outlets," he said. "Draft bills are circulating that, if passed by the legislature and signed into law, would consolidate commercial medical marijuana operations with 502 commercial operations with potential tax breaks intended to lower the cost for valid medical marijuana patients. No one believes that patients should be left with nothing."

Others, like Boiter disagree with the direction the legislature is now moving and sees considerable problems down the road as a result.

"Patients were also concerned that the highly-restricted adult-use market would become the de facto framework for medical marijuana access in Washington, a fear that is being borne out before our eyes," she said.

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