OLYMPIA – There was a time, less than a decade ago, when marijuana legislation in Washington was small in number, with a binary choice: Legal or not legal.
After voters took that choice out of the Legislature’s hands through an initiative in 2012, the scope and complexity of bills on marijuana – the burgeoning industry actually prefers “cannabis” – has grown substantially.
“It’s been almost an incrementalism,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who was one of the early sponsors of some hard-fought bills to set up the legal recreational marijuana system after Initiative 502 passed. “People are feeling a little more emboldened now, because the world didn’t come to an end.”
Two years ago, Rivers introduced a bill to allow students who treat certain medical conditions with a marijuana-infused product – oils, tinctures or creams, not the smokable varieties – at school, or allow a parent or guardian to come on campus to administer it. When she brought it up to colleagues, it was so controversial fellow Senate Republicans wondered if she was on marijuana, she said.
That bill failed. This year, a nearly identical bill passed unanimously in the Senate. It’s a sign, she believes, “that the body of knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds.”
Rivers sponsored a bill calling for new rules for labels on marijuana products, which can say they are compliant with Department of Health rules, and can describe certain uses, describe its psychoactive effect and talk about the non-marijuana ingredients they include. But they can’t make claims to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. It easily passed both houses.
“It’s a very technical bill,” she said. But even people who would never smoke marijuana or take an “edible” now use some of those infused products, and lawmakers are sensitive to that shift, she said.
Another bill received its final passage Thursday allowing “compassionate care” for some medical marijuana patients, who could renew their authorization without an in-person physical exam if a doctor said that’s a severe hardship.
Another allows marijuana businesses to collect royalties or flat fees for their trademarks that are put on products marketed by other companies.
The philosophical rift over marijuana still exists on some issues, and was most noticeable on the bill allowing courts to vacate convictions for misdemeanor marijuana possession before the law changed if the person was 21 or older when the offense occurred.
First-term Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, sponsored the proposal, which he sees as addressing the institutional bias of the nation’s “War on Drugs,” which resulted in higher rates of convictions and incarcerations for minorities, particularly African Americans.
“We’re acknowledging our participation was not correct,” Nguyen said.
It prompted some of the most passionate comments from hardcore law-and-order legislators like Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, who made a plea for colleagues to vote no when the bill came up for a vote in the House.
“Why in the world would I want to stop fighting the war on drugs,” said Klippert, a former law enforcement officer. “Drug addiction is killing this nation.”
The House passed the bill, with amendments, 69-29 with bipartisan support, and is now in a conference committee to resolve differences with the earlier Senate version. If they find a compromise, as expected, the bill is almost certain to be signed by Inslee, who already has an online system for seeking pardons for misdemeanor marijuana possessions.
Inslee is a convert to legal recreational marijuana. As he himself sometimes mentions on the presidential campaign trail, he opposed I-502, which was on the ballot when he ran for governor in 2012. Now he touts the benefits of the jobs from a growing industry and the taxes it provides state and local government.
Nguyen said Inslee’s announcement of pardons helped start the conversation over wiping away misdemeanor convictions and “gave us cover” to introduce the bill. But he doesn’t plan to stop there, hoping to undo more types of pre-legalization convictions involving marijuana, including those that resulted in felony marijuana sale convictions. Convincing a majority of lawmakers to wipe out felony convictions will be harder, he said.
But he points to a major licensed marijuana store in Seattle that’s on the same block where many people, primarily African American men, were arrested for selling marijuana and some are still in prison.
“Now there’s a person making millions of dollars, legally, off of selling weed,” he said.
Other bills are likely to receive final passage in the final week of the regular session. One sets rules for training, enforcement and violations, plus ways for a business with a marijuana license to correct those violations and settle disputes with the state regulatory agency
Another would change the authority over marijuana testing laboratories to the Department of Ecology, from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, in five years, with a new task force to develop quality standards that will report to the Legislature by next July.
On a related track, the Legislature also told the state Department of Agriculture to develop an agricultural commodity program to regulate hemp production, the non-psychoactive version of marijuana. But while hemp has little to no THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, it can contain cannabinoids, or CBDs, which are used in many medicinal products. It can also be used for cloth, rope, paper, building materials, food and feed, and the seed oil is used in a variety of cosmetics, lubricants and household objects.
Many other bills got a brief notice but have no chance of becoming law this year. They include restrictions on billboards advertising marijuana, whether marijuana stores can sell other merchandise, and whether the current law that forbids marijuana businesses with 1,000 feet of schools should be expanded to include bus stops, preschools and child care centers.
Chris Marr, a former Spokane state senator and former member of the state Liquor Control Board when the first regulations for marijuana businesses were drafted and enacted, now lobbies on some cannabis issues. Legal marijuana has some of the same challenges with state law and regulations as alcohol did after Prohibition, he said. The difference is that alcohol regulations evolved over 80 years, the marijuana industry has come online in seven.
After the initiative passed, only Washington and Colorado had legal recreational marijuana for adults, and a handful of other states had medical marijuana. Now a majority of states have some form of legal marijuana, with the list growing every year.
“We thought ‘We’re leading the nation,’ ” Marr said of the period right after legalization. “Now there are concerns we may be falling behind.”
That helps explain the variety of technical bills dealing with business practices and the state’s regulatory system, he said.
“This is all part of the natural growth process of a multibillion-dollar industry,” he said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.