OLYMPIA — A measure to overhaul the state’s medical-marijuana system cleared the Senate on Saturday as the state moves to merge that largely unregulated market with the still-developing legal recreational market.
Senate Bill 5887 passed 34-15 and now heads to the House, which passed a similar measure last month. Both chambers will now negotiate a final bill to reconcile the medical market with the recreational market approved by voters in 2012.
The changes under the bill sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, include reducing the amount of marijuana and the number of plants patients can possess, doing away with collective gardens and establishing a patient registry.
Rivers called the measure a framework and said it was “the very best attempt to protect our patients and their rights while making sure we meet Initiative 502 guidelines,” which legalized the recreational use of marijuana.
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At the end of 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize possession of recreational marijuana by adults 21 and older. The voters also called for the establishment of systems of state-licensed pot growers, processors and retail stores.
Sales have already begun in Colorado, but licensed stores in Washington state aren’t expected to open until summer.
Washington law has allowed the medical use of marijuana since 1998. The hundreds of dispensaries that currently exist are not regulated by the state, but they loosely operate under current state law for “collective gardens,” which allows qualifying patients to pool their resources to grow, produce and deliver medical cannabis.
Lawmakers have worried that the largely unregulated medical system would undercut the taxed recreational industry established by Initiative 502. U.S. Justice Department officials have warned that the state’s medical pot status quo is untenable.
Medical-marijuana patients have come to Olympia in recent weeks to decry the potential changes.
Under the measure that passed Saturday, collective gardens would be eliminated Sept. 1, 2015, meaning that unless current dispensaries receive a license from the state, they will have to close. But under the measure that passed Saturday, patients and designated providers could form cooperative marijuana-growing operations of no more than four participants.
Rivers has said she’s sympathetic to patients’ concerns, but she’s worried about what the federal government will do if the state doesn’t make the changes.
“I believe we are doing a lot for our patients in this,” Rivers said. “They were at front of mind when we were developing this bill.”
Under her measure, the amount of cannabis patients can have would be cut from 24 ounces to 3 ounces. Under the recreational law, adults are allowed to have up to an ounce. The measures also limit the number of plants patients can grow to six. Under current regulations, they can grow 15.
Rivers’ bill would allow a health professional to authorize an additional amount, but no more than 8 ounces or 15 plants. Her measure would also allow additional amounts for marijuana-infused products like liquids and concentrates.
The measure permits stores to have a medical endorsement to sell medical as well as recreational marijuana and allows an option for endorsed retail stores to solely serve medical-marijuana patients. The bill requires the Liquor Control Board, which is overseeing implementation of Initiative 502, to consider the needs of patients in determining the number of retail licenses issued. Currently, the board has limited recreational retail licenses to 334 across the state, for which there are currently more than 2,000 applications.
The measure also allows patients with an authorization card to not pay sales and use taxes at retail stores that have a medical-marijuana endorsement. Patients with an authorization card are allowed to grow pot in their homes, something that recreational users are not allowed to do under Initiative 502.
Also under the bill, the state’s Liquor Control Board would be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, voted against the measure because he said no funding was included in the bill for local governments to work with the new regulations. “The only piece of the puzzle we missed is the revenue share,” he said.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said one of her keenest disappointments came in 2011 when then-Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed her legislation to regulate the medical-marijuana industry. She and Rivers noted that adding revenue sharing for local governments remains possible, and the bill is still a work in progress.