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Legalization Will Change Medical Marijuana Programs

Russ Belville

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Dear Medical Marijuana States

I’m writing today to inform you that if you have a medical marijuana program and are thinking about legalizing marijuana use by all adults, that legalization will affect your medical marijuana program.

But that’s not a reason to oppose marijuana legalization.

Here on the West Coast, we’ve had medical marijuana since the late 1990’s. As the first medical marijuana states, we also enjoyed the greatest leeway in terms of protection from enforcement of the controlled substance laws.

We tried to keep medical marijuana untouched by legalization. The campaign for Washington’s Initiative 502 repeatedly claimed their language did not change medical marijuana laws. Oregon’s Measure 91 said specifically, three times, that their language was not to affect medical marijuana. Neither initiative contained any language modifying medical marijuana in any way.

Those were not lies or false promises.

Both initiatives could have considered how to reconcile medical and commercial marijuana programs, but advocates for medical marijuana demanded that the legalization initiatives in no way altered the medical marijuana laws. So they didn’t. (Tragically, if medical advocates had allowed I-502 to integrate language to strengthen medical marijuana, the legislature could not have changed it for two years.)

But legalizing marijuana can’t not change medical marijuana. Medical marijuana is not legality; it is an exception to criminal prosecution for patients under prohibition. So when aspects of the criminal prohibition are eliminated, how could the exception not change? What would we be making an exception for?

Pacific Northwest Chicken Littles

In Washington and Oregon, the exceptions for medical marijuana are based on the fact that patients need a lot more marijuana. While adults can only possess one ounce of marijuana, patients in Washington can possess 3 ounces and those in Oregon can possess 1.5 pounds. While adults in Washington cannot cultivate and those in Oregon can only cultivate 4 plants, patients in Washington can cultivate 15 mature plants and those in Oregon can cultivate 6 mature plants and unlimited seedlings. Both states have robust dispensary systems as well, medical and commercial.

Now both of these medical programs are being amended by their state legislatures (note: not by the legalization initiatives) to curtail some of the most egregious abuses. Most of these changes are reasonable, some are unnecessary, a few are counter-productive. But if you ask the medical marijuana advocates, all of these changes are tantamount to repealing medical marijuana altogether and imprisoning every medical marijuana patient, and they’re all the fault of legalizing marijuana for all adults.

In Washington, major changes were made to their medical system, especially their unregulated, never-legalized dispensary and farmer’s market system. Dispensaries now have to be licensed and follow regulations and pay taxes (like everywhere else). Collective gardens are smaller—a “mere” 45 plants and 4.5 pounds for 10 patients. Patients now have to register with the state (like everywhere else), and the process for getting a recommendation has been tightened (like everywhere else). Possession was reduced from 1.5 pounds to 3 ounces.

If you ask the medical marijuana advocates, it’s all the fault of passing I-502, because the state wants to funnel medical patients into the taxed commercial system. They act as if the legislature never would have done anything in reaction to naturopaths handing out medical recommendations to healthy 20-somethings attending a rap concert; or complaints about dozens of stinky cannabis plants growing in the neighbor’s back yard; or storefront dispensaries openly flouting the law.

In Oregon, the latest changes to our medical program include a potential increase in third-party grower fees from $50 to $200, restricting medical marijuana cards to Oregon residents only (we had been the only state to allow non-resident cards), and the elimination of card-stacked gardens in favor of urban and rural garden limits of 12 plants / 72 pounds and 48 plants / 576 pounds, respectively, with double those limits grandfathered-in for existing large grows.

The grower fee is what a patient has to pay the state to register another person to grow cannabis for the patient. In practice, however, the growers cover those fees for the benefit of having a card that allows them to sell excess medical marijuana to dispensaries. Card-stacked gardens used to be when multiple third-party growers, allowed to cultivate 6 plants and possess 1.5 pounds each for 4 patients, would grow at the same address.

The medical marijuana advocates in Oregon are blaming Measure 91 for these changes as well. They act as if the legislature never would have done anything in reaction to consistent news stories of growers profiting from trunk-loads of medical marijuana bound for sale seized east of Oregon; or the urban mega-grows surrounded by flood lights, razor-wire fencing and guarded by pit bulls; or the investigative reporting that showed Oregon’s largest card-stacked medical marijuana garden contained 624 mature plants and served 104 patients from Southern California.

I get demands from these medical marijuana advocates to raise the hue and cry about how the poor vulnerable patients will be devastated by these changes. While I’m not in favor of adding more restrictions to medical marijuana, it’s also really difficult to crank up the outrage machine when, even with the changes, Pacific Northwest medical marijuana patients have it better than patients almost everywhere in the United States.

How, exactly, do I get regular, non-marijuana folks to get worked up about a Washington patient having to see a real doctor to verify a serious condition and register with the state for the privilege of triple possession limits, the right to grow and a tax exemption, when patients in every other state with medical marijuana have to do just that?

How, exactly, do I get regular, non-marijuana folks to get worked up about an Oregon grower being limited to planting only a dozen cannabis plants that can yield up to 6 pounds per plant in his backyard in the middle of the city, when half the medical marijuana states don’t allow any personal cultivation and most of the rest allow far fewer than 6 plants and 1.5 pounds of possession per patient?

California Toke-and-Drive or Bust!

The next battleground is California, where they have just finally passed medical marijuana regulations after 18 years of unregulated chaos. I’m personally glad they passed those regulations before legalization happens, only so it will be harder for medical marijuana advocates to blame legalization for reining in the excesses of California.

Harder, but not impossible.

Already, as medical marijuana advocates there review the most-likely initiative to pass, the one submitted by billionaire Sean Parker, they are blaming the passage of the recent medical marijuana laws on the legislature’s desire to regulate the system in advance of legalization’s inevitable passage. It seems we can’t even think about legalizing marijuana, lest medical marijuana be inconvenienced.

Those advocates are already calling for the defeat of the Sean Parker initiative for various reasons, but the most ludicrous to me is rejecting legalization because it contains a new “open container” violation that is a $250 fine. I’ve read complaints that with such a violation, it would be impossible for a medical marijuana patient to consume while in a moving vehicle.

Really, they want me to attack a legalization plan because it doesn’t allow a person to smoke pot in a car and would require someone to put their weed in the trunk or behind the back seat. They even warn that medical marijuana patients simply riding in a car with marijuana on their person would be arrested and jailed for that “open container,” even though the punishment is just a $250 fine.

So, California, Arizona, Nevada, MassachusettsMaine and any other medical marijuana state considering legalization, let’s just get it out in the open—legalization will change your medical marijuana program. If you’re waiting for the perfect “True Legalization™” that won’t affect medical marijuana, you’ll never legalize marijuana.

But before you go joining the cops, prison guards, rehabs and drug testers in voting to maintain prohibition, consider all the ways legalization improves medical marijuana.

Any adult who needs marijuana medically can just go into a store and buy it; no more having to register with the state and pay for the privilege of not being arrested, no more having to prove some condition from a list (PacNW) or claiming any ailment (Cali) and pay a doctor for a permission slip, and no more public condemnation of medical marijuana as some ploy to smoke pot legally.

Then there are specific legislative improvements to help patients that the medical marijuana advocates never seem to bring up post-legalization. Washington’s legislature finally legalized concentrates, lowered marijuana’s commercial tax rate, and now the price of commercial marijuana across the river from me in Vancouver, Washington, is $60-$70 per half-ounce, way lower than the $240-$280 per ounce price I find in Seattle medical marijuana dispensaries. Oregon’s legislature increased possession of non-solvent concentrates to a full pound, increased a single grower’s medical possession from 6 pounds to 72 pounds and made possession felonies for any amount impossible.

In California, the Sean Parker initiative also improves medical marijuana. It protects all indoor personal grows from local bans, and you may possess all the marijuana you grow. There can be onsite consumption at pot shops and the possibility of consumption in certain limos, buses or even Uber rides, if there’s a barrier between driver and passenger. Parental rights for medical marijuana patients are now specifically guaranteed.

Legalization also means that the non-patients who were gaming the medical marijuana system to avoid arrest don’t have to anymore. The patients who have lesser need and often look healthy to a skeptical public will also drop off the medical rolls as they avoid the hassle and expense of getting their medical cards. Those who will remain in the medical programs will be the truly needy people that even red state Republicans would agree should be allowed to use medical marijuana. That can only help the prospects of passing medical marijuana elsewhere.

So, medical marijuana states, know full well that nobody can promise your medical marijuana program isn’t ever going to change. Even if marijuana legalization doesn’t happen, as evidenced by recent changes proposed in Michigan and Hawaii’s programs, medical marijuana will change.

However, fearing that change is no excuse for voting to keep ticketing, arresting and imprisoning people who don’t have medical marijuana cards.

"Radical" Russ Belville hosts 'The Marijuana Agenda' on YouTube, a live weekday news/talk program all about cannabis. Learn more at MJAgenda.com.

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