With lawmakers and the recreational-pot industry eager to regulate medical marijuana, patient advocates are often finding themselves left out of the conversation.
OLYMPIA — Just outside the room with jars full of cannabis, Rainier Xpress owner Patrick Seifert points out the photos of veterans on the walls of the medical-marijuana dispensary’s waiting area.
They’re all customers, says Seifert, who added that he gives every veteran customer a joint a day to cope with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other medical problems.
But Rainier Xpress, which Siefert says serves up to 120 patients daily, may not be long for this world. Preoccupied with a thriving black market and medical products that aren’t subject to state-mandated testing, lawmakers want to fold the state’s medical-marijuana patients into the highly regulated recreational system.
“I hope we can stay here for a lifetime, but that remains to be seen,” Seifert said as he stood in the dispensary’s lobby.
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Medical marijuana, approved by Washington voters in 1998, has flourished beyond its roots of small, mostly personal grows and small collective gardens to become a cottage industry of unregulated dispensaries that provide patients a variety of unique products.
The state estimates there are 1,100 dispensaries, and fewer than half may become legal under legislation that will get a public hearing on Thursday.
But now the state has a new, highly regulated recreational system, which voters approved under Initiative 502. And as cities and a group of new pot businesses lobby for a comprehensive set of regulations, medical-marijuana advocates are seemingly finding themselves on the outside looking in.
“At the time, during I-502, we were promised ‘medical won’t be harmed,’ ” said Seifert. Since the initiative passed “we’ve been under attack, now we’re competition for I-502.”
But he may have a tough time finding sympathy with lawmakers like Sen. Ann Rivers, chief architect of a medical-marijuana overhaul this year under Senate Bill 5052.
“His business is illegal,” said Rivers, R-La Center. “It’s illegal, and while I laud what he’s attempting to do, collective gardens were only intended to service 10 people at a time.”
Sitting in a Capitol campus cafeteria, Kari Boiter, state director for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), shows off a pair of cannabis patches on her wrist. They help relieve the symptoms she suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare disorder of the connective tissue.
ASA, which has 8,000 Washington members, is concerned that SB 5052 might result in a system that doesn’t include the variety of products patients get now at medical dispensaries.
Boiter says that if she walks into a recreational store right now, she won’t find different strains of cannabis or a host of non-smokable products.
“I’m not going to find the high-CBD strains that I’m used to using, a lot of the specialty products, transdermal, topicals, tinctures, they aren’t there right now,” said Boiter.
“How are we going to make sure the products that exist now, that are actually very beneficial to people with serious illness, make it over to the other system?” she added.
Boiter and ASA are also concerned about the database under SB 5052 where patients would have to register to be authorized for medical products.
Since marijuana, medical and otherwise, is still illegal at the federal level, federal authorities could gain access to the database and prosecute those found in it, according to Boiter.
“You can lose your job, you can lose your house, you can lose your kids, you can actually have medical care rejected,” she said.
ASA prefers an alternative to Rivers’ proposal, one that lawmakers approved in 2011 before then-Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed parts of it. Reintroduced this year as House Bill 2058, it would create a separate regulatory system for the medical market.
But HB 2058 hasn’t gotten a public hearing, and Rivers said in late February that with the recreational market in place, HB 2058 doesn’t have much use.
“As I look more about implementation, I see that’s it just not a possibility with the I-502 market the way that it is,” Rivers said.
ASA isn’t the only group testifying for medical patients, but it is one of the most organized.
In a January public hearing, a multitude of smaller groups showed up, like John Worthington, whose home was raided in 2007 by a drug-enforcement team, with the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis. Also speaking was Arthur West, a public records gadfly with Cannabis Action Coalition, and representatives from Okanogan County from The People For Medical Cannabis. Individual medical patients also testify before lawmakers about how the unregulated system works for them.
But not all of those who operate medical dispensaries oppose SB 5052. Seattle medical dispensary owner John Davis calls SB 5052 “the best shot that we have to get some sort of licensing.”
Davis says the Rivers bill needs polish and that there are valid concerns about patients having enough products or stores for medical marijuana under a new system. But if SB 5052 passes, Davis believes his dispensaries will get licensed.
Burgeoning pot lobby
Meanwhile, a group of recreational producers, processors and retailers are lining up behind the Rivers proposal. Organized as the Washington Cannabusiness Association (WACA) it has a seasoned lobbyist, Vicki Christophersen, as its executive director.
As with any regulated industry, she said, “there needs to be consistency in application across the state.”
And, she added later, “I think there are a lot of folks that are in the medical system right now that want to be regulated.”
After last year’s attempted overhaul failed in the Legislature, Christophersen said she brought the idea of an industry group to recreational-marijuana entrepreneurs.
“I went to them and said, ‘We need a trade association,’ ” said Christophersen, whose other current clients include the Association of Washington Spirits and Wine Distributors and Washington State University. “We need to be just like the restaurant association or the hospital association. We need to have a professional organization that can have a credible voice.”
And that’s how WACA, which now has 42 industry members — growers, processors, retail stores and one testing lab — is operating. WACA has focused its arguments, testified in legislative hearings and even donated to lawmakers’ campaigns last election cycle.
Recipients of WACA money — $26,000 in all — included contributions to both major parties’ spending committees and to Republicans in leadership positions, such as Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond; Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville; and House Republican Leader Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.
Included among the Democrats were Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who sponsored her own bill, and Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle. Cody chairs the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, where SB 5052 will be heard Thursday.
Recreational producers stand to gain in sales if medical marijuana is folded into the recreational system. How much that would amount to, “We have no idea,” Christophersen said. Right now, sales of medical marijuana are about $85.6 million annually, according to a recent state estimate.
Christophersen dismisses the concerns about a patient database as “a fear-based argument that doesn’t have a lot of factual history around it.”
“We have to have some mechanism,” she said. “And every other state does.”
Other support for regulation
SB 5052 arrives at a time when politicians and local governments are determined to stamp out a black market and make sure medical patients have products that are tested according to standard regulations.
But few say much about the devil-in-the-details aspects that medical patients are concerned about.
In a January legislative public hearing, representatives of the Association of Washington Cities, the city of Seattle and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office all testified in favor of SB 5052.
The state Liquor Control Board, Department of Health and Department of Revenue, which would play roles in medical-marijuana regulation under SB 5052, also have signaled support.
In a statement, Cody said it is important to preserve patients’ access to medical marijuana but mostly spoke about the need for regulation.
“At this time recreational marijuana users are guaranteed more testing on their product then medical marijuana users and that is unacceptable,” Cody said in prepared remarks.
But Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, described SB 5052, as in “a very fluid situation” now that it has reached the Democratic-controlled House.
“There are a lot of House members who are not thrilled with some parts [of Rivers’] bill, including the registry,” said Kohl-Welles who offered a competing proposal this year that likely won’t be used.
Gov. Jay Inslee said in February that he’ll sign whichever bill lawmakers agree on.
“I would like to see a bill reach my desk,” Inslee said. “That is the single highest priority for us.”