There are compelling reasons for state officials to clamp down on our wildly unregulated medical-marijuana system. The chief one is that when strictly regulated, stiffly taxed recreational pot stores open, the medical dispensaries will be rival dealers, able to undercut the new stores in prices. They can also sell to minors, while recreational stores can’t.
But state officials have failed in several attempts to adopt more strict regulations. In 2011, lawmakers passed tough new regulations in Senate Bill 5073. But Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of that bill, for fear that state employees overseeing the system could be arrested by the federal government, which considers all forms of pot illegal.
Lawmakers took another run at regulations this year. A bill passed easily in the Senate, but died in the House on the last day of the legislative session. For now, medical marijuana remains as it was before recreational pot was legalized.
Why can’t medical marijuana co-exist with the recreational system?
The main problem, mentioned above, is that the medical system could siphon off many consumers and tax dollars from the recreational system. But there are others.
Some lawmakers believe the medical system is largely a fiction, with the majority of patients authorized for fraudulent reasons under the broad condition of “intractable” pain. Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin wrote about his 2012 experience at Hempfest, where he received his medical authorization at a tent, after an 11-minute consultation, without his medical records. State officials later suspended the licenses of the naturopaths involved, saying they were running an “assembly line.”
In other ways, the medical system has evolved into commercial operations the original 1998 law did not envision. In applying for a recreational pot license last year, dispensary owner Sean Green reported that his nonprofit, Pacific Northwest Medical, had annual revenue of $800,000 and his salary was $129,600. There are now an estimated 300 dispensaries in Seattle, although dispensaries are not allowed by the state’s medical-marijuana law. The medical system allows patients to have such large quantities that some lawmakers believe medical pot is being diverted illegally to non-medical users. Washington allows patients to have 1.5 pounds of marijuana, for instance. Of the 22 states with medical marijuana, only Oregon allows patients as much. Washington also allows patients to grow up to 15 plants. Colorado, known for liberal pot laws, allows patients two ounces and six plants.
So why doesn’t the state crack down?
It’s easier said than done. Patients and medical-marijuana providers have organized an effective lobby. Many have sympathetic stories, such as Ryan Day, a former U.S. Marine, who provides medical marijuana to his 6-year-old son with a severe form of epilepsy. And they have impassioned arguments as to why they need to grow their own plants, possess as much as the law allows, be exempted from taxes, and have products they think will not be sold in recreational stores. In the Legislature earlier this year, a bill died in the House of Representatives on the session’s last night, despite personal lobbying by Gov. Jay Inslee. It would have allowed medical-marijuana sales at recreational stores, perhaps with a tax exemption, sold by trained personnel. Lawmakers said the bill was doomed by politics (Republicans wanted a cut of pot taxes for local governments, while Democrats didn’t.), other legislative priorities and lobbying by medical-marijuana interests that wanted to kill a rushed, scaled-down bill coming out of the House.
Wouldn’t it be unfair to force medical patients to use recreational stores?
Not necessarily. As one of our recent stories showed, medical-marijuana strains are sometimes not what they purport to be in name, chemical content and genetics. This is particularly concerning for patients seeking pot low in intoxicants and high in pain-relief or other therapeutic qualities. And there’s this irony: the recreational law requires that all pot be tested by accredited labs, and that the chemical content determined by those tests be shown on all package labels. The pot must also be certified as safe from contaminants. That means recreational-pot users will soon have greater assurances about the safety of the pot they buy at retail stores than the best-educated patients have in the largely unregulated medical system, where testing and accurate labeling are not mandated for dispensaries.
Didn’t the city of Seattle outlaw dispensaries?
City officials adopted a law last November mandating that all medical operations must have a state license by Jan. 1, 2015. That seems unlikely to happen. But the city has been lax about medical operations in the past. It will surprise some if the City Council sticks to its 2015 deadline.