Lauren Dake, The Columbian

Washington’s unregulated medical marijuana market has repeatedly been described as the wild, wild West.

Well, the gunslinging has started.

One activist Photoshopped a portrait of Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, a key lawmaker pushing the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, adding fangs and devilish red eyes to the photo.

A medical marijuana user said Rivers’ measure, which has gained momentum in the state Legislature, would be so detrimental to patients, he has a hard time picturing her as anything other than an “evil person.”

Rivers, for her part, said she’s been miscast, and is empathetic to those who, as her dying father once did, rely on medical marijuana to ease the pain.

“I believe there are appropriate users,” Rivers said. “Likewise, I believe there are people using and saying they are patients who are not truly patients.”

Last legislative session, the state’s attempts to regulate the medical marijuana system and put it under state control failed. This legislative session, Rivers said, there is an urgency among lawmakers to rein in the system.

The governor hasn’t taken a position on Rivers’ bill but said through a spokeswoman it’s time to create a marketplace where the “medical marijuana market works alongside the recreational market and is regulated to ensure patient safety.”

Many patients who have relied on medical marijuana since it was legalized in 1998 are anxious about the changes and worried aligning the two systems could mean they would lose access to medicine they rely upon.

“To those people who say patients weren’t considered, I’ve met with more patients than I can name,” Rivers said.

A few “bad actors” are whipping others “into a frenzy” over misinformation, the lawmaker said.

Senate Bill 5052’s registry

Nobody knows how many medical marijuana users there are in the state.

There’s not a clear picture of who is authorizing medical marijuana cards, of which doctors or naturopaths or nurse practitioners are willing to recommend cannabis.

And there aren’t figures for how many dispensaries are scattered throughout the state.

One of the more controversial components to Rivers’ measure, as crafted now, would create a patient registry.

“We don’t know how many patients there are and what their needs are, what their conditions are or where they live,” said Kristi Weeks, director of the Department of Health’s legal services.

Using data from other states, the health department estimates about 150,000 adults and 8,000 minors would register for a card. But it’s only a guess.

Having firmer data will help policy makers base decisions on “actual facts, instead of guesses and anecdotes,” Weeks said.

For many reasons, including a fear of federal prosecution since marijuana is still illegal at that level of government, some medical users do not want to be in a database. Rivers’ measure was recently amended to make the registry optional; those who don’t opt in, however, would not be eligible for tax breaks, be able to possess as many plants or be given an arrest defense, like those who register would.

The medical marijuana community supports regulation, said Jennifer Estroff, who is lobbying on behalf of Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for legal access to cannabis, but it needs to be “patient-focused.”

“We are concerned patient harm will be done in this legislation,” she said, adding that people still remember when those with HIV had to register and “the discrimination that came out of that.”

Other concerns have been voiced about the measure as well, including a fear that combining the two systems could force sick patients to have to go to recreational stores to buy their medicine.

Estroff said she hopes the conversation will veer away from the attacking and continue “back to where it should be, which is, ‘What is the best public policy we can pass?’ ”