It's progress that Washington State's most high-profile drug war is presently being fought with bills and proposed amendments in the hushed chambers of the Capitol building in Olympia. But it's still a goddamn mess.
This year, lawmakers are under pressure to reconcile our largely unregulated medical marijuana market with the highly regulated recreational market. But in meetings, they've vacillated between Reefer Madness–style hysteria and acting just too tired to deal with complicated policy questions. To make things even more challenging, pot activists are split, arguing for opposite approaches to the markets and accusing each other of being driven by greed.
Meanwhile, new bills are being introduced all the time and things are getting downright strange. "If you're not there," says Kari Boiter, a medical cannabis patient and activist, "you're getting run over."
In the state senate, two major plans emerged at the start of the session.
The first plan: A confusing approach from Senator Ann Rivers (R-La Center) to keep the medical system separate from recreational sales. In general, the separate markets concept is supported by many medical marijuana activists. The problem: Rivers's bill originally sought to ban all forms of smokable pot and still requires patients to join a registry (a hugely unpopular idea in some circles).
The second plan: A reasoned approach from Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) that combines the medical and recreational markets, but also fixes some key pieces of the legalization law by allowing home grows for anyone 21 and older and simplifying the tax structure. It's supported by Alison Holcomb, who authored the state's legalization initiative, as well as Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes. But the Kohl-Welles bill has yet to get a hearing in the committee where it was sent: Commerce and Labor, chaired by Senator Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane).
Baumgartner says it's taking time to get to the lengthy bill because of the other things before his committee. Kohl-Welles isn't convinced it'll get a hearing at all—and if it does, it may be too late to matter at the pace the problematic Rivers bill is moving along. "It's aggravating," Kohl-Welles says.
While she waits, the Rivers bill is changing in profound—and sometimes interesting—ways. After a January 29 committee meeting, the bill's ban on smokables is out and it no longer keeps the medical system separate from the recreational system. In other words, it's starting to look more like the Kohl-Welles bill, but has a Republican name on it. (Democracy!)
At the same time, other lawmakers keep introducing more bills. In the state house, Representative Christopher Hurst (D-Enumclaw) has now combined 18 different proposals into one bill so that lawmakers can carve out what they want. This massive piece of legislation includes—just to give you a little taste—new regulations that protect the current medical marijuana market and a provision that would get rid of all forms of legal cannabis except in pill form. (If that sounds contradictory, well, once again: democracy!)
In the coming weeks, we could see more changes to the Rivers bill in the senate, an unlikely Kohl-Welles comeback, or new momentum for that clusterfuck of a house plan. Meanwhile, here are where some of the biggest questions stand:
Should there be a separate system for medical marijuana? Anyone who's shopped in the recreational pot market can tell you that the system hardly feels ready for a new, additional mission: meeting the huge demand for medical pot. Recreational stores have significantly fewer products and a fundamentally different purpose than medical pot dispensaries. As Boiter, the medical cannabis activist, puts it: "You would never send someone to get their pharmaceuticals from a saloon." But that perspective is up against lawmakers on both sides of the aisle (and people like Holcomb and Holmes) who think the systems ought to be folded together for both simplicity's sake and to reduce unfair competition for the recreational market. Since both senate proposals now merge the systems, it seems likely that approach will win out.
Should patients have to register to buy pot tax-free? Lawmakers and law enforcement want some surefire way to verify that people buying medical pot really need it. But instituting a registry unearths a whole bunch of other issues, including the worry that, because of marijuana's federally illegal status, a list of patients could someday end up in the hands of the Feds. This remains far from solved.
Should we be able to grow pot at home? Of the states that have legalized marijuana, Washington is the only one that doesn't allow small grows at home. The question now is whether to allow them only for medical patients or for everyone. That is, if the homegrow concept gets any traction in this political climate at all. Kohl-Welles says some of her colleagues act as if the concept is "dead on arrival." She hopes to change their minds.
What do we do about exploding hash-oil labs? Hash oil is a highly concentrated THC extract that's made by filtering pot through a solvent like highly combustible butane. It's legal in the recreational market, where the state has strict rules about how it's made, but it is also prevalent in the medical market and among amateur pot producers, who make it in their own homes. A few high-profile cases of exploding hash oil have drawn public attention to how dangerous the process can be.
The Rivers bill would specify that making hash oil at home is a felony, while the Kohl-Welles bill would allow the state liquor board to create rules allowing medical patients to use less flammable solvents to make their own hash oil.
Making hash oil is only getting more popular and, as Holcomb says, "It's not as though anyone wants to blow him- or herself up." So lawmakers now have the chance to mirror the progress made with legalization and approach the problem with regulation and education. Or they can focus on punishing people for something they're going to keep doing anyway. How they proceed will be yet another indicator of whether they're really making any progress at all.