A few years ago, my friends Monica and Nate got ahold of a few marijuana cuttings, also known as "clones," and planted them in their backyards. Neither of their plants grew into the towering, gawky, bamboo-like stalks you see in stock news photos of professional marijuana grows. Monica pruned hers to grow smaller and bushier, less conspicuous, almost ornamental—the bonsai of marijuana. They were stupidly easy to grow, both said, no more difficult than tomatoes or basil. One year, the wind knocked over Monica's pot planters, breaking one and crunching lots of the stems—but they hurtled back to life.
There were only two catches. The first: Their marijuana ended up being fairly mild. As another friend with backyard-grow experience explained to me, the strong "power-weed" sold by stores and reputable dealers requires a strict regimen of light, fertilizer, water, filtration, and other pampering. It's possible to grow low-maintenance marijuana just about anywhere—but the backyard version doesn't have the same intoxicating intensity.
That was just fine for Monica, who, like me, finds most commercial-grade pot too strong for her taste. (Hers was just about perfect.) For some users, a mild, light, easy-to-grow plant that is pleasant to look at and doesn't send you around the bend is ideal—like a soothing glass of wine instead of high-octane liquor.
The second catch is trickier: Even though marijuana is now legal in Washington State, growing a few plants of your own is still a felony.
Why can't we grow our own marijuana? And by "we," I mean any Washington State resident over the age of 21 who might want to try cultivating a small marijuana patch?
For reasons medical, recreational, or horticultural, Oregon allows adults over the age of 21 to grow four plants. Alaska, Colorado, and Washington, DC, allow six, with some restrictions on how many plants can be mature and flowering at any given time. This marijuana isn't for selling. Just for tending, sharing, or admiring from a distance. And, despite what some legislators down in Olympia are saying these days, it doesn't seem to be causing anybody any serious problems.
Washington is the only legal-marijuana jurisdiction in the country that bans small-scale home cultivation for personal use—which is bizarre. We're a state full of gardeners and DIYers who are able to brew our own beer, ferment our own wine, and even grow our own tobacco if we want to (though this is a lousy climate for it).
Why not pot?
Initiative 502, which legalized the recreational market in Washington State, did not include home growing. Alison Holcomb, the ACLU attorney who largely wrote I-502, says it was written conservatively to broaden its voter appeal and to minimize any possibility of federal intervention. The polling numbers for the bill were already tight, she says, and the drafters of 502 thought adding a home-grow provision would be an unnecessary risk. She thought those kinds of issues would get ironed out in subsequent years—like this year.
Now is the time.
Washington State, like Colorado, is fine-tuning its marijuana laws right now. One of the stronger-looking bills in Olympia this legislative season is Senate Bill 5052, the controversially named "patient protection act" (some say it should be called the "get rid of medical marijuana act"), which passed the senate back in February and is now roiling in the house of representatives.
Several stories have been written about 5052 already, but to summarize: The bill, championed by Republican senator Ann Rivers, would consolidate the medical marijuana market into the hands of recreational businesses, to the anguish of some medical marijuana advocates. Rivers is getting strong support from recreational marijuana entrepreneurs and a few deep-pocketed investors at the Washington CannaBusiness Association (WACA).
Supporters of the bill say it's about safety, quality control, and a simplified tax structure—reining in a chaotic and less regulated medical marijuana marketplace, subjecting medical marijuana to the same testing and labeling standards as recreational marijuana, and creating a registry of pot-growing patients so the state can keep track of what's going on.
The registry issue is a hot spot of contention. It was originally mandatory in the bill's wording, but that was challenged and changed during 5052's stormy cruise through the senate. Now the registry is technically voluntary, but 5052 critics such as Democratic representative Brian Blake say that word is a smoke screen. "They're calling it a voluntary registry," he said, "but I find it so coercive that it doesn't meet my test... you don't get the same tax breaks and legal protections [from law enforcement] unless you agree to be registered."
Some opponents of 5052 say the bill is an attempt to concentrate a new and potentially enormous industry, with potentially enormous profits, into the hands of the few people who managed to get recreational licenses. As of March 15, the Washington State Liquor Control Board listed 135 active retail licenses selling to a state population of seven million. (For comparison, by the end of 2014, Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division had issued more than 322 retail licenses within a state population of only 5.4 million. Current Washington law caps the number of possible retail licenses at 334. Colorado does not have a cap.)
Representative Blake says he doesn't think recreational stores need to go after the medical market to survive. "I think there's an organized effort to consolidate," he said. "And I'm not sure that's necessary for the 502 businesses to be successful."
There's some disagreement about how deeply the Washington CannaBusiness Association was involved in writing Senator Rivers's bill. In an e-mail last week, Senator Rivers downplayed their role, telling me it was "minimal." But back in February, WACA director Vicki Christophersen told the Daily Beast that her organization worked closely with Senator Rivers, and that the senator "took a lot of our suggestions."
Legislators in Olympia, such as Democratic senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, think the connection is unambiguous. "The CannaBusiness Association helped write Senator Rivers's bill and has really been pushing it and has been comprised of wealthy individuals," she said. Republican representative Cary Condotta was more blunt: "Senator Rivers is controlling this issue and is working directly for the industry... they have a lot of lobbyists working on it. Some say up to 10 or 12, and I've seen six. Most major bills, you get a couple-three."
Either way, WACA clearly wants recreational businesses to have a lock on Washington's marijuana. WACA's enrollment form requires potential members to sign a declaration of principles. Principle number one: "All cannabis (medical and recreational) must be produced, processed, and sold through the i502 system... No non-i502 regulated entities or individuals should be allowed to produce, process, or sell cannabis."
Which brings us back to those small-scale home grows.
During a floor debate on February 13, as 5052 was pushing its way out of the senate and toward the house, Senator Kohl-Welles proposed a simple amendment: People over 21 in Washington—just like the people in Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, and DC—should be allowed to grow a few plants of their own. Six, to be exact.
Senator Rivers quickly batted that amendment aside, saying: "My colleagues in Colorado, when asked about their cannabis system, their marijuana system, what one thing they would change—universally they say, 'Do not. Allow. Home grows.' It is a genie you cannot get back in the bottle. It is difficult to regulate. They say over and over, 'Don't go there, don't go there, we wish we hadn't.'"
Moments after Senator Rivers said that, the amendment to allow home grows was struck down. The bill is now in the house, where representatives have another chance to add a home-grow amendment. Representative Cary Condotta, legislators say, is likely to introduce some amendments soon. (If you care about this issue, write to him right now at firstname.lastname@example.org. And write to everyone else at the bottom of this article, too.)
Curious about this scourge of home grows that Senator Rivers says Colorado's leaders "universally" regret, I called and e-mailed Colorado officials and reporters. I couldn't find a single person who was concerned about them. Colorado senator Kevin Lundgren said he hadn't heard of any fretting over small-scale cultivation among his colleagues.
"Honestly, I have not heard anything about home grows," echoed Daria Serna of Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division. They occasionally come up in discussions about rental properties, she said, but she thinks that's the landlords' problem for not prohibiting home grows in their contracts. Other than that, she said, "I just have not seen anything about it."
Ricardo Baca, the Denver Post's lead reporter on legalization in Colorado, said the same thing. "The home grow hasn't been a major issue," he said by e-mail. "It's not something that has been revisited all that vocally in city council or the state legislature, whereas other issues have been addressed and evaluated as such." The current controversy in Denver is whether to limit unlicensed grows to a whopping 36 plants. The six-plant grows? Not a problem, he says.
Alison Holcomb likewise says she hasn't seen any data from Colorado about small-scale home cultivation being a problem.
Even the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, which might feel like home grows threaten its market share, wrote in an e-mail: "Representing leaders of the licensed, regulated industry, the Chamber can confidently say that home grows for personal use have never been a significant 'issue' here in Colorado."
I asked Senator Rivers to name any of her Colorado "colleagues" who warned her against a six-plant provision. Her response: "Keep digging." I'll take that as a no. (To be fair, she also referred to a Brookings Institution analysis of the Colorado law, which mentions some "worry" about "homegrowers' potential to skirt the law"—though the report presented no evidence of any problems.)
For its part, the Washington CannaBusiness Association neither supports nor rejects home grows. "You raise a great question," WACA director Christophersen said by e-mail last week when asked for the organization's position. She said their first priority is 5052 and "ensuring that we have a safe, quality-controlled, and regulated marketplace for cannabis... we will use that policy lens in any future work we engage in regarding small-scale home cultivation."
Neither King Country prosecutor Dan Satterberg nor King County sheriff John Urquhart said they'd be particularly worried about small-scale home grows. Both are more concerned with large-scale collective gardens. If we reform those correctly, Satterberg said, "with the right price points, home grows will be like homemade beer—something for the enthusiasts but not competition for the licensed, taxed, and regulated retail alcohol system."
So why not add a home-grow amendment to 5052 in the house? Not only is there no evidence that it would create problems, Holcomb said, "adding a home-grow amendment could solve a lot of problems."
Take the controversial medical marijuana registry, for instance. If everybody—medical, recreational, and horticultural—were allowed to grow up to six plants, small-scale medical growers wouldn't have to worry about being part of a registry. A six-plant limit is also a bright line for law enforcement, and a lot easier to parse than the technical murk of medical marijuana qualifications. (It wouldn't solve the issue for medical growers who want or need more than six plants, but it could take some of the pressure off the debate.)
Then, of course, there are the children. Always the children. Never mind that the youth of America haven't had much trouble scoring any pot (or booze or tobacco or anything else) for the past half century—just about everyone in Olympia says their colleagues are concerned about "youth access" and whether kids might stumble across a home grow.
Which returns us to Monica and her delicate, user-friendly garden weed. The pot that kids have access to today—like the pot I had access to as a kid—is the "power weed" variety, bred to be as potent as possible. That's how smuggling works. One has to develop potent drugs, stuffing a bigger high into a smaller volume, maximizing profit per ounce while minimizing the risk of getting caught.
Extraordinarily potent drugs cultivate extraordinarily potent tastes. As drug prohibition rolls back, it's quite possible that the drugs themselves will become milder. Allowing home growers—like home brewers—to legally and comfortably produce low-potency intoxicants might cultivate a generation with milder tastes.
If young people are going to have access to marijuana—and they already do—which kind would you prefer they have access to? The powerful stuff sold on the black market and in pot shops? Or Monica's mild home-grown?
I know what I'd choose.
A bill that could fold the medical marijuana industry into the recreational market, Senate Bill 5052, has passed the state senate and is now in the house. If you’re in favor of the house adding an amendment to 5052 that would allow for small-scale home grows—an amendment that was killed in the senate—now is the time to contact your representatives. The following representatives have indicated support for home growing in the past:
Brian Blake (D): email@example.com
Cary Condotta (R): firstname.lastname@example.org
Reuven Carlyle (D): email@example.com
Luis Moscoso (D): firstname.lastname@example.org
Sherry Appleton (D): email@example.com
Dean Takko (D): firstname.lastname@example.org
Hans Dunshee (D): email@example.com
Maureen Walsh (R): firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Reykdal (D): email@example.com
The following senators sponsored 5052 and appear to oppose home grows. (Senator Rivers definitely opposes them.) If the bill passes the house with a home-grow amendment, the senate will have to approve it, so write to them and let them know what you think:
Ann Rivers (R): firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian Hatfield (D): email@example.com
Steve Conway (D): firstname.lastname@example.org
You can always find your legislators at: app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder.