Warning from Washington: Alcoholic Beverage Control Will Ruin Medical Marijuana in California

California legislators will vote Tuesday on a bill that would regulate the production and distribution of medical marijuana (cannabis) across the state. AB 1894, the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Control Act, was introduced by Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and bring strict controls to how medical cannabis is grown, manufactured and sold in California. And, while patients should benefit from statewide regulations aimed at improving the quality and safety of their medicine, giving authority to the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), as AB 1894 does, will spell disaster for the patient community in California and ignores the problems of its neighbor to the north, Washington State.

Proponents of Initiative 502, Washington State's legalization measure, promised medical cannabis patients in the lead up to the vote that their longstanding rights would not be impacted. Yet, soon after the initiative passed, the Washington State Liquor Control Board (LCB), an administrative agency that looks like California's ABC, recommended legislators do away with Washington's 16-year-old medical cannabis law and empower the LCB to oversee all marijuana activity. The prime motivation for this? The medical cannabis market represents a perceived threat to the state's expected tax revenues from I-502, which are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

To many unaware public officials, the idea of rolling the medical cannabis market into the recreational marijuana market seemed to make sense. It's all marijuana after all, right? Wrong! The needs and rights of patients would be ignored under the authority of a liquor-based regulatory agency, and evidence of this can be seen in Washington.

To satisfy the wants of a much larger adult-use community in order to benefit from the enticing tax revenue, the LCB has prioritized licensing producers who will grow potent, high-THC (more euphoric) strains of cannabis. But, what about the strains that benefit the smaller medical-use community, which are not always high in THC? What about the topical lotions or herbal tinctures made for therapeutic use? The LCB doesn't care about, let alone understand, the anti-inflammatory properties of medical cannabis.

The LCB and ABC are also not set up to protect the identity and privacy of patients the way departments of health are able to. If patients have questions about their medication, such as where it was grown, what was it grown with, and what is the best strain for their particular medical condition, liquor control agencies are ill-equipped to provide the necessary answers. In fact, I-502 in Washington expressly forbids LCB staff from providing information about the marijuana they will be selling. And, if the LCB would end the medical program in the interest of maximizing tax revenue, why would it be motivated to make cannabis affordable for patients?

For the average cancer patient, a gram of concentrated cannabis oil is considered a standard daily dose and it can take up to an ounce of raw cannabis to make one gram of oil. It's easy to see how the tax implications are enormous and why public officials are eager to collect the twenty-five percent on each sale. However, under the LCB-regulated program, an already expensive medicine becomes unaffordable for thousands of patients, and is no longer an option.

By contrast, Colorado, whose voters also legalized recreational marijuana, understands the importance of keeping its medical cannabis program distinct, under the authority of the Department of Public Health. Because of this, patients have retained their privacy, are able to ask questions about their medicine that allows for informed medical decisions, and can obtain cannabis at more affordable prices than from the recreational market.

California would do well to heed the hard-learned lessons from Washington. The Alcohol Control Board does not have the best interests of patients in mind and isn't equipped to properly regulate a medicine. While California is in need of statewide regulations that will bring greater safety and quality to medical cannabis, only the Department of Public Health, not ABC, is capable of keeping the interests and rights of patients at the forefront. Therefore, AB 1894 sponsor Tom Ammiano should listen to the patient community, heed the warnings from Washington State, and amend his bill to bring medical cannabis oversight under the Department of Public Health.

Kari Boiter is a state coordinator for Americans for Safe Access and the community organizer for “Health Before Happy Hour,” a campaign to preserve medical cannabis in Washington State.