Back in 1998, Washington’s decision to follow California into an experiment with medical marijuana was radical. (See an earlier Seattle Times news story.) But 15 years in, after voters went for the exciting new thing in Initiative 502’s legalized recreation marijuana last fall, medical marijuana now seems be viewed as a late-’90s Honda Prelude, hardly worth its scrap value.
Monday, the state Liquor Control Board is to set to recommend, at the Legislature’s request, upgrades to the Prelude. The Seattle City Council earlier this month gave what most cannabis watchers believe was a sneak preview, asking Gov. Jay Inslee and key lawmakers to merge the medical and soon-to-be opened recreational markets.
The Legislature should because it’s the right thing for patients, and for the state, and because the state can’t allow the two to operate side-by-side. Washington’s medical marijuana market is the most unregulated in the country – no state licensing, taxation or centralized patient registry to assure medical qualification. The recreational market created by Initiative 502 is more heavily regulated than liquor – stringent seed-to-sale controls, heavy tax and closed to people under 21. The tax revenue – estimated to raise between $635 million and $3.2 billion over the next 10 years according to Botec, the Liquor Control Board’s I-502 consultant – is too fat a purse for lawmakers ignore by leaving the medical market an unregulated competitor.
Merging the markets is also good for patients. If the U.S. Department of Justice lives up to its recent pledge to target unregulated markets, not reforming the medical marijuana market would be like putting a bull’s eye on local dispensaries (even more than they already have). That disrupts medicine to patients, and opens the door for the feds to get patient records. Inaction by the Legislature is an invitation to the DEA to bust down doors.
Here are my top five suggestions to the 2014 Legislature on medical marijuana:
1. Voters in 1998 intended medical marijuana to be reserved for most acutely ill – people puking their guts out from chemo or wasting away from Crohn’s disease or HIV/AIDs. Today, being a “medical marijuana patient” in Washington is in air quotes, because it means nothing. A “green card” can be had by anyone with phantom pains and $75. There are just six conditions that qualify for medical marijuana, according to state law, but the Department of Health has failed to seriously police abusers. That has to end. Here’s the Christmas party video for one big authorization clinic that gave me a specious green card at Hempfest, which I wrote about in a Seattle Times news story. See any sick people here?
2. The Legislature should use the Liquor Control Board to close the medical marijuana dispensaries by requiring all marijuana retailers to get an I-502 license. Patients – real, bona fide suffering patients – should get a waiver from the recreational store’s huge sin taxes. Dispensaries should a grace period – say a year or so – to get a license, and the board should up the number of licenses in Seattle and Tacoma, where the dispensaries have clustered.
Dispensaries (Botec estimates there are more than 300 statewide) will say this is unfair, but consider this. Washington’s medical industry had multiple chances to embrace vigorous seed-to-sale regulations similar to those in Colorado; instead, vocal pot-repreneurs like Steve Sarich fought them, and fought Initiative 502. Colorado is the analog case study: When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana last fall, its highly regulated dispensaries got first shot at recreational retail licenses. Washington’s medical marijuana industry (with a few notable exceptions, which I wrote about in a an earlier column,) gambled on a strategy of de-regulation – and lost.
3. Sick medical marijuana patients need medicine, and that means a different type of marijuana than the Liquor Control Board is regulating for recreational stores. Products with big concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD) – the less psychoactive, more analgesic sister of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – has to be prominent if patients are going shift from dispensaries to I-502 stores. So, too, with non-smoked food and drink items. I-502 stores need to hire smart, trained staff to cater to medical users, and the Liquor Control Board should allow sellers to describe the effects.
4. It’s surprisingly hard to grow really good marijuana. Washington’s medical marijuana law recognized that from the beginning, allowing a caregiver to grow for a sick patients. The Legislature should absolutely preserve the ability for patients – real, legitimate patients – to grow their own, have a caregiver grow for them, or allow them to join 10-patient, 45-plant collective gardens. Any grow should be registered with the Department of Health, because police need to know if they’re walking into a legitimate or a black market grow.
5. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board has a nice ring.