The merger of the state’s medical and recreational marijuana systems occurs July 1. We answer key questions about the changes to come.
The day of reckoning has come for Washington’s medical marijuana system.
It’s been a strange trip, starting with 1998’s Initiative 692, which opened the door to home growing for patients and morphed into “collective gardens” that sprouted more than 300 storefront dispensaries statewide.
Once voters legalized recreational weed through Initiative 502 in November 2012, medical marijuana’s future in Washington was pretty much written. I-502 treated all pot the same. In practical terms, that made the largely unregulated and untaxed medical system a rival dealer of the highly taxed and regulated I-502 regime.
That merger depends on heaps of hope. There’s the hope that most patients will be able to get the products they want in the recreational stores; hope that patients will join a voluntary state database in order to avoid sales tax; hope that cities and counties will allow patients to home-grow, particularly in those jurisdictions that have banned legal pot stores and farms.
At this point, no one knows how it will play out. Until the changes take effect Friday, July 1, the state won’t know how many patients will register for tax breaks or growing cooperatives, and how many patients may instead turn to the illicit market.
There are signs of concern. Seattle’s top-selling store, Uncle Ike’s, doesn’t plan to jump into medical products July 1. “We’re in no great hurry to be first in line,” said owner Ian Eisenberg. John Kingsbury, a Seattle medical-marijuana activist, said he knows patients looking to move to Oregon and illicit dealers giddy about selling to patients. Jim MacRae, a Woodinville data scientist, contends the state underestimated the number of medical patients and their needs.
Amid this uncertainty, we try to answer some questions.
Q: What’s different on July 1?
A: For starters, all those storefronts with green crosses should disappear if they haven’t already. Most in Seattle have shut down. A good number of their owners have obtained retail-store licenses and new “medical endorsements” from the state, requiring them to have trained consultants on staff to help patients. Local authorities are primarily responsible for shutting down any holdouts, as well as enforcing the law against illicit dealers. The state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) will help, according to its enforcement chief, Justin Nordhorn, but it won’t lead the clampdowns.
Q: Where will patients go?
A: It’s not clear how many retail stores will carry products for patients, such as those containing a lot of cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical in cannabis that appears to calm seizures and doesn’t get patients high, or very high. CBD products can be vital to children with severe epilepsy or adult patients who need to work or drive when medicated. Some retailers have argued that serving patients takes too much time, making them “unprofitable.”
Q: If the medical market is so big, won’t stores see patients as lucrative?
A: Probably. But some retailers believe many patients already are shopping in recreational stores. The LCB intends to license 222 new stores — in addition to the initial batch of 334 — in hopes of serving patients. More than 300 stores have sought a medical endorsement. But it will be left to patients to find the stores, based on their own research and advertising by the stores, much in the way the market works in other industries.
Q: Will stores have a separate section or counter for patients?
A: It’s hard to say. Like other retailers, Eisenberg questions whether the break on sales tax — 9.6 percent in Seattle — will be enough incentive to bring many patients into stores, where they’ll still pay the 37 percent marijuana excise tax. He believes the distinction between recreational and medical consumers “is in the intent of the user” more than different products. Oscar Velasco-Schmitz, co-owner of Dockside Cannabis, said its two stores plan to serve patients but he’s not sure if that will change their layouts. “How will it roll out? We don’t know,” he said. “It’s rife with questions. It will take time.”
Q: Are patients allowed to possess more than recreational consumers?
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A: Yes. Recreational consumers are allowed to buy and possess up to one ounce of dried marijuana, 16 ounces of infused edibles, 72 ounces of infused liquids, and seven grams of concentrates, such as hash. Patients with medical authorization who do not want to be entered into the state database (privacy being the chief concern) will be allowed six ounces of dried marijuana and may grow up to four plants in their homes. Patients entered into the database can have eight ounces and six plants. With specific approval from a doctor, patients will be allowed 15 plants and 16 ounces of pot (less than the 24 ounces now allowed). But if patients are not in the state database they may only purchase the same amounts as nonpatients in stores.
Q: Are patients allowed different products?
A: Yes. Because some patients use more pot than recreational consumers, the state will allow patients to buy products with higher amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot. Recreational consumers can buy an edible, for instance, with up to 100 milligrams of THC. Patients in the database will be allowed products containing five times that, or 500 milligrams, in a single package. But only in certain forms: capsules, tinctures, patches and suppositories. And only if patients are in the state database, which some are leery of, especially after state officials released personal information about license applicants in a recent accident. Patients also are allowed to grow plants at home, which is forbidden for all others in the state.
Q: What if a patient doesn’t have time or space to grow?
A: If 21 or older, patients can join a cooperative that can serve up to four patients and grow a total of 60 plants. But again, they have to register with the state to do that. And there’s another rub: Cities and counties can ban home-growing in land-use laws. Also, cooperatives must be located at the domicile of a member. If outdoors, they must be enclosed by an 8-foot-high fence. Cooperatives must also be at least one mile from a licensed retail store and 1,000 feet from venues where minors congregate, such as schools, playgrounds and parks. They’ll also be subject to compliance checks by state regulators.
Q: Did the state change the qualifying conditions for medical marijuana?
A: Yes, it added post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury to the qualifying conditions.
Q: Can minors still be patients?
A: Yes. But patients under the age of 21 can’t participate in a cooperative, although a designated provider over 21 may do so on their behalf. Another change: Parents or guardians must agree to a minor’s use, participate in the minor’s treatment, maintain sole control over the minor’s marijuana and be entered into the state database.