Fifteen years ago, voters in the state of Washington passed into law one of the nation's first state-level medical marijuana programs. While certainly flawed, as most of those early laws were, the pioneering program has produced a robust network of doctors, growers, dispensaries, and patients in the Pacific Northwest.
Last year, in the 2012 elections, Washington joined Colorado as the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults, enjoying an easy 55-45 victory at the polls. More recently, a memo was sent out by Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Department of Justice, essentially giving the two states the feds' blessing to move ahead with their experiments with legal weed. It's all good in Washington, then, right? Unfortunately, no.
The complaints about the gritty details of I-502 - the 2012 legislation that legalized pot in the state - are well-documented. But the fiery debate these days is more about how the new recreational pot laws will impact the well-established, wholly separate, medical pot laws.
By definition, the two should be treated as two separate issues, and it even says as much right on the front page of the state-sponsored medical marijuana information website where it plainly states: "The initiative (I-502) does not amend or repeal the medical marijuana laws (Chapter 69.51A RCW) in any way. The laws relating to authorization of medical marijuana by healthcare providers are still valid and enforceable."
Yet, some very influential people in the state's major population centers have begun to suggest that perhaps the state's new recreational marijuana laws might have better chance at success if the current medical marijuana program was rolled into the new recreational laws and guidelines.
This proposal has Washington's medical marijuana patients and advocates up in arms, as they fear that I-502 was not written with them in mind, and that the current medical marijuana regulations are not as revenue-driven as the new recreational laws.
Already, a "work group" was formed by the state Liquor Control Board, and they have come up with recommendations to finally revise the 15 year old medical marijuana laws, but none for the better from a patient's perspective:
They propose to BAN all home cultivation and collective gardens. They propose to drop the amount of herb that a patient is allowed to possess from a 60 day supply (24 ounces), to a one week supply (3 ounces).They propose voiding ALL current doctor's recommendations and forcing ALL patients to re-apply for a new recommendation under newer, much stricter, guidelines. And among several other draconian recommendations, they propose that all medical marijuana patients sign their personal information into a registry, which would then be accessible at any time by law enforcement.
Similarly, in Seattle, the City Council recently passed a fairly restrictive ordinance in preparation for the full implementation of I-502 and recreational weed sales. In a bit of foreshadowing, they decided to lump all medical marijuana businesses and storefronts in with the new zoning restrictions set for the soon-to-be-opening recreational shops.
Again, outrage from the patients, but the City Council was not finished. They then drafted a letter to the Governor expressing the deep, heartfelt concerns they had about the alleged impossible relationship between medical and recreational markets, pleading, "If relatively easy access to medical cannabis continues, the goals and potential of Initiative 502 will be undermined...This could mean combining the general adult cannabis market and the medical cannabis market into a single, regulated system."
Patients argue that rolling their weed in with recreational weed will inevitably lead to taxation on their herbs which are not subject to such taxes under current state law. They worry about the availability and recreational legality of specialty items like edibles, tinctures, concentrates, and high-CBD products and strains. Currently, recreational pot shops and medical marijuana dispensaries will both need a specific business license to operate beginning in 2014, but the problem is, no such license currently even exists for medical marijuana businesses, since they never needed once before.
But perhaps the most illogical facet of all is that under I-502, employees at dispensaries are forbidden by law from discussing the medical benefits of specific strains or products with the customer.
So where is this concern-trolling from the Seattle City Council originating from? Who has an interest in making sure that I-502 reaps as much success as possible?
As with most things in politics, you need only scratch at the lotto-ticket-like veneer of any issue before you find the money behind it. In this case, when the voters passed the initiative last year, 215 million dollars in new tax revenues were promised to the public. The state promptly hired BOTEC Analysis Group to consult them in the implementation of the new law, and to essentially guide the state to its $215-million.
Right off the bat, however, BOTEC's bean-counters realized that the $215 mill was pie in the sky and they started looking around for a scapegoat. Enter, medical marijuana.
BOTEC, on the hook to deliver a 9-figure payday, was the first to run the talking point that the Seattle City Council would later parrot to the Governor, when they floated the line, "I-502 stores may not compete well on price with medical access points if they have similar production processes but face higher taxes."
So the state of Washington's 15 year-long success with medical marijuana is in very real jeopardy now all because some high-powered white-collar corporate consultation group waltzed into a conversation that they'd never had before, and made promises that could not be kept. It's the apparent cover-up, though, that now threatens the safe access for thousands of the state's legitimate medical marijuana patients.
As we push, ultimately, for full legalization on a national level, we must always be aware of the inherent dangers that the real free market economy often brings with it.