In the ongoing and ugly war between recreational and medical pot, the medical camp recently lost a huge battle.
On February 13, the Republican-controlled Washington State Senate passed a measure—called the "Cannabis Patient Protection Act"—that, if it passes the house and is signed by the governor, will do exactly the opposite of protecting patients, according to some activists. The bill seeks to do away with all current medical marijuana dispensaries, folding that market into the state's new recreational pot industry created by Initiative 502. Dispensaries that are currently operating would have until next July to get licensed through the Washington State Liquor Control Board or be shut down. And medical marijuana patients would be required to join a registry if they wanted to buy cannabis without the steep taxes that people using weed for fun and pleasure are now paying.
This is basically the nightmare scenario that medical pot activists have been warning about for some time. They're worried—with good reason—that the handful of recreational stores that now exist won't be able to replace the hundreds of medical dispensaries currently operating. They've also noticed the huge difference in how many products medical dispensaries offer as compared to recreational stores. And many of them are dealing with legitimate illnesses that make it difficult for them to get to the industrial areas and out-of-the-way places where recreational pot stores tend to be located. (Because they have to comply with state law requiring them to stay 1,000 feet from schools, parks, playgrounds, rec centers, day cares, arcades, libraries, and transit centers.)
But don't worry, state lawmakers are saying. It'll all work out... eventually!
The whole notion of combining the two markets is inherently problematic. On its face, it seems like the simplest way to deal with the long-standing inconsistencies between the unregulated medical market and the ultra-regulated recreational one. And it's not just senate Republicans who support the merger, but also big names in legalization, including Alison Holcomb, who wrote Initiative 502, and Pete Holmes, Seattle's pro-pot city attorney.
But what now seems like a simple solution could easily become a complete disaster.
As anyone interested in buying legal weed knows, the rollout of I-502 has been slow. Seattle will be allowed 21 recreational pot stores in total, but just nine have been licensed so far (and only eight are open). So even though they're no longer dealing with the supply shortage that plagued the early days of our new "pot-topia," there just aren't that many places to purchase commercial weed. Now compare the commercial store numbers to city and state data that shows about 300 medical marijuana growers and dispensaries in Seattle. (The Weedmaps website shows about 60 medical storefronts.) It's easy to see the pot availability crunch that could be coming.
Commercial stores are also limited in how they can advertise, what they can sell, and what kind of medical advice they can give (currently: none). How's that going to work for patients needing advice on which strains are appropriate for their conditions? And while prices have fallen a lot since opening day, weed at commercial stores is still more expensive than at medical dispensaries because of all the taxes and rules.
With all that, it seems unlikely the recreational market as-is can meet the medical demand. The senate's bill would allow the liquor control board to license new businesses (with a preference given to those that have experience in the medical market). But they'll still face the 1,000-foot rule, state taxes, and the bureaucratic hurdles of getting licensed—which are significant and were part of the reason for the slow commercial store rollout in the first place.
Nearly everyone agrees the free-for-all of the current medical market can't last, and most of the patients and medical activists I've spoken to actually want new rules for their industry. For example, required quality testing, which exists for recreational pot but not medical. But they're feeling run over by the legislative process that's produced a bill set to end the world as they know it.
"The whole problem with this conversation is it's being run from the perspective of how do we make sure  businesses are successful," says Kari Boiter, a medical marijuana patient and activist with the national group Americans for Safe Access. "Not 'How do we make sure patients get what they need?'... We're not having an honest discussion about what's really at stake here."
Boiter says her group will continue pushing for a house bill that keeps the medical market separate from the recreational one by restoring rules former governor Chris Gregoire vetoed back in 2011, including a separate licensing structure for medical marijuana growers and stores.
Still, advocates can't ignore the senate bill, which seems destined to become the basis for the biggest new pot law coming out of Olympia this year. If they can't fight off combining the two markets in the house, they'll have to try to tweak the merger model in a way that won't completely decimate patient access.
Here's some of what they will—and should—be fighting for:
Make the patient registry optional.
The state needs a way to verify that people who grow medical marijuana, or get tax exemptions when they buy their pot, have a true medical need. But requiring them to list off their illnesses and personal information in a database that could someday be accessed by the Feds (who still say marijuana is more dangerous than cocaine and meth) is a risky way to do that. Instead, pot activists say the registry should be optional and those patients who choose not to enter it should be able to argue their medical need if they end up in court.
Boiter says she's also concerned the law, as passed by the Republican-controlled senate, would require doctors to enter their patients into the registry instead of patients entering themselves (because doctors could be afraid of losing the federal license that allows them to prescribe controlled substances). "It's one thing to ask a patient to incriminate themselves," Boiter says. "It's a whole other thing to ask a health-care provider to do it."
Allow home grows.
Holcomb has said she thinks home grows should be allowed for anyone who's 21 or older, in order to give everyone equal access. Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes said in a January memo on marijuana that home grows would "establish more equity between marijuana and home beer brewing and wine making." But the senate's bill allows only registered patients to grow up to six plants—less than half the 15 they're currently allotted (which allows for making things that take a lot of pot, like concentrates).
Not every patient is physically or financially able to grow their own weed, so this wouldn't fix everything. But, as Holcomb points out, Washington is the only state that's legalized pot without allowing small home grows.
Get rid of or reduce the 1,000-foot rule.
This matters both for access—consider a sick or elderly patient walking nearly three football fields from a bus station—and for cannabis businesses looking for places to open. For the system to succeed, we need enough stores to drive down prices and provide access to everyone.
Some other bills introduced this session have given cities the option to reduce the buffer to 500 feet, and Holcomb says she thinks we're "past the point of needing it" altogether. But the senate's bill keeps the 1,000-foot rule.
Similarly, the senate's bill allows cooperative grows between four people—similar to what are now known as collective gardens, and currently allow up to 10 people to participate. But cooperative grows are only allowed, under the senate bill, if the site of the grow is at least 15 miles from a storefront. Cooperatives are meant to be a way to maintain so-called "compassionate care," in which caregivers grow for specific patients or share cannabis with sick people at low or no cost. But limitations like the reduction to four people and the distance rule could hamper their effectiveness as an alternative to buying from stores. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the senate Democrats' pot champion, tried to amend the 15-mile rule when the senate voted on the bill. But her effort failed.
Allow stores to deliver.
Like home grows, this would be one way to help serve patients who'll go from being able to access large numbers of medical dispensaries to the more limited recreational market. Holcomb has advocated for delivery for all adults unless the liquor board nixes the 1,000-foot rule. Boiter, the activist with Americans for Safe Access, wants delivery rights to be easy to get for those with a store license.