Medical marijuana will soon be folded into the recreational marijuana system created under Initiative 502.
Medical marijuana will soon be folded into the recreational marijuana system created under Initiative 502. Atomazul/Shutterstock

Governor Jay Inslee today signed a lengthy reform bill that will radically change the way medical marijuana is bought and sold in Washington state. Inslee also vetoed seven sections of the bill, but left most of the new system intact as the legislature designed it. (That's in sharp contrast to the last big veto on medical marijuana, which got us into the mess we're in.)

"I recognize the solution is not perfect," Inslee said at the bill signing, reading from a letter he sent to the legislature. "However, I do think this is far better than today's wholly unregulated system."

I already wrote a detailed rundown of everything the law will do, but the basics are this: Starting next summer, medical marijuana dispensaries will no longer exist in Washington state. Instead, medical marijuana will be sold in the recreational pot stores the state started licensing last year after voters approved Initiative 502. To sell medical cannabis, those stores will have to carry certain products and do extra training of their staff. In order to buy marijuana in larger amounts than allowed for recreational users and to get out of paying sales tax, medical patients will have to get a doctor's recommendation and join a patient registry. Patients with a doctor's recommendation can grow up to four plants, and those who join the registry (which is optional) can grow up to six (patients are currently allowed 15).

The changes are meant to reconcile the two marijuana industries in Washington state: the unregulated medical system and the highly regulated recreational system.

Lobbyists for the recreational businesses have supported this bill, saying they're facing unfair competition from medical businesses that don't check for doctor's recommendations, effectively serving recreational customers without regulations or taxes. But patient advocates have had a lot of concerns about the bill. I detailed those earlier, but among them is the frustration at the decreases in plant counts and possession limits and the fact that the law doesn't exempt patients from the excise tax, which is higher than the sales tax at either 30 or 37 percent, depending on which separate tax bill makes it through the legislature.

Both medical advocates and law enforcement pleaded with Inslee for certain vetoes, but neither side won much of a victory today. Inslee left in the requirement that doctors specify how much marijuana they recommend for a patient, which some worry could amount to prescribing and endanger doctors' federal licenses that allow them to prescribe controlled substances. (If true, that could make doctors reluctant to recommend cannabis at all.) But he also left in the provisions allowing for small cooperative grows for patients, which the mayor of Tacoma and the state Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs had asked him to kill.

Here are the sections he vetoed:

• 36, which would have prevented employers of any health care professionals from banning or limiting health care professionals from advising patients about the medical use of marijuana. Inslee said this could "cause confusion and potential unintended consequences" and was added "without adequate input." The original sponsor of this bill, Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center), and Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle), wrote Inslee asking him to veto this section, saying it was added too late in the legislative process without enough input from hospitals.

• 42 and 43, which removed medical marijuana from the state’s controlled substances act. Which products exactly qualify as medical marijuana has yet to be decided by the Department of Health and the Liquor Control Board (now called the Liquor and Cannabis Board). Inslee said he was worried that removing only medical marijuana instead of all marijuana “may cause serious problems such as having the unintended effect of limiting the types of marijuana that are considered medicine.” He said he has asked the state Department of Health to consider the idea and report back next year and that he will continue advocating for a federal rescheduling, which would be "most beneficial."

• 44, 45, and 46, which created new felonies for growing and selling medical marijuana outside of state-licensed stores, or possessing medical marijuana not obtained from a legal provider. (Again, what counts as "medical" marijuana? We don't know yet.) “Washington state does not need additional criminal penalties related to medical marijuana," Inslee said.

• 52, which made the bill contingent on another bill, House Bill 2136, proposed by Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), which would collapse the state’s current three-tiered tax structure into one 30 percent tax charged to customers. That bill is important because marijuana businesses currently can’t deduct their state taxes from their federal taxes since the drug is illegal at the federal level, meaning they’re basically getting double-taxed. Collapsing the taxes will prevent this. But it’s not clear whether that bill will survive the legislative process, and Inslee said tying medical marijuana reform to that effort would “risk jeopardizing the integrity of the system created in this bill.” (This veto was a win for Seattle's lobbying team, who asked the governor to strike this section.)

You can read Inslee's full veto letter to the legislature right here.