Medical marijuana faced heightened scrutiny this year as the Washington State Legislature tried to shut down storefront dispensaries and severely reduce the amount of pot that patients can grow and possess. But despite claims from federal prosecutors that the current medical pot system is untenable, which prompted legislators in Olympia to introduce a slew of bills, their proposals were so incongruent that all of them failed.
The bills were also controversial.
The biggest lightning rod was HB 2149 from Representative Eileen Cody (D-Seattle), which would have revoked legal defenses in court and restricted patients to three blooming marijuana plants and three ounces of dried pot, down from 15 plants and 24 ounces. Legislators also wanted to create a registry of medical marijuana patients.
In the end, of the 50 pot-related bills introduced this year, only two pot bills passed—one to clearly legalize hash sales and another to deny standard agricultural tax breaks to pot growers. Medical marijuana legislation appeared on its way to Governor Jay Inslee's awaiting pen, but it died on the house floor after a litany of last-minute amendments was introduced.
The entire mess stems from a clash between the highly regulated recreational market, which voters approved in 2012 but doesn't yet exist, and the entrenched medical market, which operates with few guidelines. While legal recreational cannabis—our state's newest celebrity—enjoys broad support, medical cannabis is increasingly getting the short end of the stick. This is, in my opinion, a backlash to the proliferation of storefront pot shops in the last three or four years. Detractors are concerned these dispensaries will undercut highly taxed recreational marijuana stores, while other critics, it seems, find pot shops annoying to look at on their way to a federal law-enforcement job.
It's that last point that will drive the debate between now and the next legislative session in January. If the perception of a medical pot problem declines, local regulators and pot-hating Feds are likely to focus their energy on more pressing politics. But if the perception of a problem amplifies—if dispensaries continue to open next door to other dispensaries on Rainier Avenue South, for instance—cities may move to ban them altogether, winnowing dispensaries to pot-friendly cities like Seattle.
But Seattle won't tolerate dispensaries for long, since the Seattle City Council enacted a law in October requiring dispensaries to obtain a medical marijuana business license from the state or shut down by the end of this year. And, of course, there is no state medical marijuana license.
For now, dispensary owners can breathe a sigh of relief, but their actions will shape the next year. Expect some dispensaries to close if their owners obtain recreational cannabis licenses. But in places like Seattle, where state regulators plan to issue only 21 of these retail licenses—a fraction of the total number of dispensaries in Seattle—expect most to stay open. The Feds will likely take a wait-and-see approach. But if they're not happy with the overall situation, or if they think a specific dispensary operator is pushing the envelope too far, they will likely send a round of landlord-threatening letters or potentially raid a few pot shops before the next legislative session.