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Washington flips the switch on a new medical marijuana system

Darlene Brice considers herself a medical marijuana “warrior” fighting for the right of people to use the drug to treat medical conditions.

She uses it herself for anxiety. Now 64, she said she has been busted twice and convicted once for growing marijuana in her home, although the conviction is so long ago her record has been expunged.

On Friday, the self-described computer geek will take the battle to a new front – as a certified consultant at a state-licensed store that has an endorsement to sell medical marijuana.

She’ll be at the North Division Satori store on the first day after Washington flips the switch on a new era of legal marijuana that combines medical and recreational sales of the drug in stores under the control of state agencies. Like many state-licensed recreational marijuana stores, Satori applied for and received a license to sell medical marijuana under the new system.

Having completed a 21-hour course from the state Department of Health, Brice will be able to discuss with customers the different strains of marijuana and their possible effects on a range of illnesses. In theory, she has also trained to enter patients with a proper recommendation from a physician into the new state database and issue them a “recognition” card that will allow them to purchase medical marijuana without paying the state sales tax that recreational customers pay.

But the department warned this week the database was “experiencing some software challenges” and may not be ready on day one.

“You say ‘What could go wrong?’ Everything,” Brice said.

Access to state-approved medical marijuana products is likely to be limited Friday because that version of the drug requires additional testing for microtoxins and heavy metals. Such testing is only done by one lab in the state.

Under the new state law, all medical marijuana dispensaries not licensed by the state are required to close Thursday night, and patients are being urged to switch their business to state-licensed retail stores with medical endorsements.

But at last count, the number of state-licensed stores with medical endorsements exceeded by a couple dozen the number of certified consultants like Brice. About 200 more people have enrolled in the course, and 125 are on a waiting list, state officials said. But when the new system goes live Friday, there won’t be enough certified consultants to go around.

Recreational stores with medical endorsements can still sell medical marijuana – if they can get it – but without a consultant they won’t be able to make recommendations for a particular strain to handle a specific condition, or enter a customer in the database for the recognition card. Without a card, a medical marijuana patient can’t avoid the 8.8 percent sales tax; be allowed to purchase three times the 1-ounce limit set for recreational customers; or legally grow up to 15 plants in their home with immunity.

(Editor’s note: This clarification to the story was added on July 6.) A medical marijuana patient with a doctor’s authorization who does not sign up for state database and receive a recognition card could grow up to four plants at home and assert an affirmative defense in court if cited or arrested by police.

“The state would really like you to think this whole thing will be smooth,” said Joe Rammell, a licensed marijuana grower who operates New Day Cannabis. “I’ll be surprised if many stores are going to be up and running July 1.”

Medical marijuana patients may be seeking specific strains with higher levels of certain chemicals like cannabinoids, or CBDs, but low tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces the euphoric “high.” Under the old unregulated system, some dispensaries obtained some of those strains from outside Washington, but state-licensed growers and processors can’t.

“There’s no way to get a particular plant from another state,” Rammell said.

State-licensed stores can only buy marijuana and products derived from it, like oils and edibles, from state-licensed businesses that grow and process the drug. The dispensaries that have medical marijuana left after Thursday can’t legally sell it to a state-licensed stores.

The number of dispensaries throughout Spokane that will be put out of business is unclear, because the state did not license dispensaries and some did not apply for city or county business licenses.

“We really don’t know how many dispensaries there were in the state, and how many were legitimate dispensaries and not just fronts,” said Vicki Christophersen of the Washington Cannabusiness Association, which represents state-licensed marijuana businesses. That was a major reason behind the push to combine the systems, she said.

Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the City of Spokane, said only four dispensaries currently are licensed in the city, because Spokane switched from local licensing to the state process a little over a year ago. Seven others have pending renewal requests, and 13 had licenses under the old system that have not been renewed.

Spokane sheriff’s Deputy Mark Gregory estimated between 30 and 40 dispensaries exist in the city and county, and members of the sheriff and city police departments have visited them to make sure owners know they will be violating the law starting July 1. Officers will check back in the coming days and weeks to make sure they closed, but for those who don’t the first visit is likely to be a friendly reminder with the warning “don’t make us come back here.”

“It’s not like we’ve got the SWAT teams on standby,” Gregory said. “I think we’ll probably get good compliance.”


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