Now that Washington state’s regulations for recreational marijuana have been finalized, policymakers are turning their attention to medical marijuana.
The current system for patients to obtain marijuana with medical authorizations is largely unregulated. Federal authorities say that needs to change.
The passage of Initiative 502 last year created tension between the state’s new system for legalized recreational marijuana and its existing one for medical marijuana. Backers of I-502 are worried that cheaper, untaxed medical marijuana could undercut prices in the new state-licensed retail stores.
The legislature told three state agencies to help reconcile the two systems. Now those recommendations are due.
Philip Dawdy is with the Washington Cannabis Association. He said medical marijuana users need their own distinct system; they can’t just go to the new retail stores.
“I know there’s people that probably operate under the illusion that, all pot is just the same, and everybody needs pot for the same reasons so we’ll just throw them into the same system,” Dawdy said. “It’s not like that.”
He said medical users need specific strains of marijuana that might not be as lucrative to sell. They also want to maintain their right to own up to 15 plants and grow their own marijuana at home.
And he said they should not be subject to the 25 percent excise tax that recreational users will pay. If that happens, “you would likely see a very large tax rebellion amongst patients,” Dawdy said.
But medical marijuana providers do want a regulatory framework that gives them some legal protection. Their current “grey market” status makes them vulnerable to federal prosecution.
In August, federal officials said Washington and Colorado could pursue a regulatory framework for legalizing marijuana. But US Attorney Jenny Durkan issued a statement saying unregulated for-profit marijuana businesses outside the state licensing scheme are “not tenable.”
Mikhail Carpenter is with the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the lead agency in making recommendations for the state’s medical marijuana system. He said Durkan’s concerns add urgency to the task of resolving the status of medical marijuana. As it exists now, “it doesn’t necessarily meet a lot of the requirements of the federal government, so these are very important issues that have to be answered,” he said.
Carpenter said medical marijuana advocates gave members of the Liquor Control Board an earful at a public hearing in early October after the Seattle City Council passed regulations requiring them to obtain a state license by 2015.
“That license doesn’t exist yet. So the medical marijuana community came out in protest,” he said. The Liquor Control Board currently has no authority over medical marijuana, since I-502 doesn’t address the issue. It will be up to state legislators to create a new licensing program or figure out how medical marijuana will be regulated.
Advocates predict a “shakeout” in Seattle’s medical marijuana market, which is currently home to between 100 and 200 marijuana businesses.
The state expects to license 21 retail stores in Seattle, although City Attorney Pete Holmes has asked that the number be increased. A new medical marijuana license could allow more businesses to remain open. In Colorado, state-licensed stores are permitted to sell medical and recreational marijuana side by side.
The Liquor Control Board will issue recommendations, with input from the state Department of Health and the Department of Revenue. They’ll be subject to a three-week public comment period. The final recommendations must be delivered to the legislature by January 1.