To understand the problem Washington faces with legal marijuana, it might be best to think of the state as a family with two children.
The younger child, almost a year old and getting all the attention since before it was born last November, is recreational marijuana. Not even out of the crib yet, it’s being watched by concerned parents worried about every aspect of its growth, development and earning potential.
The older child, now a teenager that some feel is getting a bit out of control, is medical marijuana. It grew up with relatively little guidance from those same parents, who for years couldn’t decide exactly what to do with it or how to set boundaries. It has some loyal friends, shows signs of growing pains and has some of the other governments in the neighborhood – the feds, some cities and counties – saying the state needs to take a firmer hand.
The collective parents in the Legislature talked about such discipline earlier this year, but couldn’t decide on a course of action. Instead, they slipped a line into the 483-page general operating budget calling for a study of what to do about medical marijuana: Put the teenager into the same untried discipline planned for the infant, come up with a different plan or just leave things alone?
Later this month state agencies will release a draft proposal for increasing regulation on medical marijuana, possibly under the State Liquor Control Board, which is setting up rules to control, track and tax recreational marijuana.
While those discussions continue, mainly outside the public eye, the state Supreme Court recently expanded the ways a defendant facing a marijuana possession charge can claim “medical necessity” to gain an acquittal.
The Department of Social and Health Services is being accused of blocking a father from gaining custody of his infant daughter because he uses medical marijuana. A close look at the Spokane case shows the severity of the man’s medical marijuana use was debated by experts and became a key factor in a court commissioner’s decision to keep the child in foster care.
Supporters of the current system, which is basically devoid of regulation, say the study is a power grab by the liquor board, aided by people who want to eliminate medical marijuana by tying it to a system that’s bound to fail.
They’ve filed lawsuits over alleged violations of the state environmental protection laws and public meetings laws and last week brought a crowd to a Liquor Control Board hearing on rules for recreational marijuana.
State officials are “trying to push us onto a model that’s not economically viable,” John Worthington, a longtime advocate of medical marijuana, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee last week at a hearing in Steilacoom. “We’re going to fight them to the bitter end.”
Washington voters legalized marijuana for medical uses in 1998 with relatively little regulation. People with certain medical conditions, with a recommendation from certain health care providers, could have as much as a pound and a half of the drug at any one time, or grow their own, up to 15 plants. They could also join small “collective gardens” in which patients grow and share supplies.
It’s one of the biggest differences with Initiative 502, the new recreational marijuana law, which doesn’t allow people to grow their own or set up collective gardens. All marijuana must be grown by state-licensed operations and tracked from harvest to sale.
Using the statute covering collective gardens, marijuana dispensaries where patients can purchase a wide range of marijuana products – to smoke, eat, rub on skin or apply as drops on the tongue – began to proliferate in recent years.
The number of Washington residents with recommendations to use marijuana for various medical problems is unknown. By one estimate, there are as many as 240 dispensaries in Seattle alone. That compares to current state plans for no more than 21 recreational marijuana stores in that city next year.
Last month, three members of the Seattle City Council, along with representatives of other Washington cities and counties, met with key legislators and staff of the Liquor Control Board and the state Department of Health. On Sept. 30, the nine-member council sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee asking that recreational and medical marijuana be brought under a single system.
Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess said they are concerned about the lack of regulation, quality control and state oversight for medical marijuana, in terms of the number of people who can get it, the number of dispensaries and the products that are available. Said Burgess, “This is a massive social change that our state is going through, and it’s important that we get it right.”
Behind closed doors, so far
Steve Sarich of the Cannabis Action Coalition, a group of marijuana patients and dispensaries, contends the council, Liquor Control Board and other state officials are illegally developing a complete set of rules in secret with the goal of pushing them through a Legislature that has long been antagonistic to medical marijuana. Patients will be funneled into recreational stores to buy the drug, where the state stands to collect taxes that raise the price of a product by 25 percent at each phase of production, processing and sale.
The cost of recreational marijuana will be so high that the whole system is likely to fail and drag medical marijuana down with it, said Worthington, the medical marijuana advocate.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, a longtime advocate of medical marijuana, agreed the Legislature has members who would like to eliminate it, “but they are a distinct minority,” she said in an email. The medical marijuana community is also divided on how to proceed, she added.
Kohl-Welles said she wants legitimate patients to have a “secure, reliable, safe source” of marijuana. In 2011 she sponsored, and the Legislature passed, a bill that allowed patients to register and the state to license and inspect medical marijuana operations. But then-Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of those provisions, citing warnings from U.S. attorneys in Spokane and Seattle.
She said next year the Legislature might consider creating incentives for patients to purchase their medicine at recreational marijuana stores, perhaps exempting them from the taxes I-502 imposes.
“I’m leaning toward believing we don’t need to create a redundant system for medical cannabis, but we do need to ensure protections, quality, access, etc.,” she wrote, adding that the Department of Health may be in a better position to handle much of that than the Liquor Control Board. “Whether collective gardens will continue is under discussion.”
State officials defend the lack of public involvement in developing new rules for medical marijuana up to this point, saying they consist mainly of staff discussions. The finished proposal will be subjected to public hearings later this year.
Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Seattle, said he expects the finished proposal to come to the Legislature as a request from Gov. Jay Inslee but be subjected to the normal public scrutiny there. There’s a wide range of opinion about medical marijuana in the Legislature, but Goodman doesn’t believe the state should have redundant systems to regulate the drug for different users if medical patients can get the products they need, at prices they can afford, at retail stores.
If the state doesn’t start regulating medical marijuana, he said, federal prosecutors have signaled they will.