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Radical Changes Proposed For Washington Medical Marijuana

Russ Belville

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Since the passage of Washington State’s Initiative 502 in 2012, the unregulated nature of the Evergreen State’s medical marijuana program has drawn much attention from legislators in Olympia. During the first two years of implementation, only a super-majority vote of the legislature could amend the initiative. Now, just a majority is needed, so change is very likely coming to Washington’s marijuana laws.

Many Washington legislators and policy experts believe the success of the newly-legalized recreational marijuana market is threatened by the existing unfettered medical marijuana market. Differences that are cause for concern include:

* Medical marijuana patients may grow plants for themselves; recreational users are banned from home growing;

* Medical marijuana dispensaries number in the hundreds; recreational pot shops are limited to a handful in a few cities;

* Medical marijuana requires no testing or labeling; recreational marijuana is stringently tested and accurately labeled; and, most importantly to the state government,

* Medical marijuana is untaxed; recreational marijuana is taxed 25 percent at production, 25 percent at processing, 25 percent at retail, plus state and local sales taxes averaging about 8 percent.

A lack of supply combined with few sellers and high taxes have priced recreational marijuana at up to $30 per gram.  That cannot compete with medical dispensaries selling at a third the cost and old-fashioned pot dealers hanging out in the parking lots undercutting the pot shop prices.

Clearly, this situation is neither tenable nor desirable for all parties involved.  The state wants to make its tax revenue.  The recreational users want a good product in stock at a reasonable price.  The medical users want easy access to medical-grade products without taxation.  All users want the option to grow their own.  Almost everybody wants to end the black market.

This week, the first legislation was announced to address the medical and recreational systems in Washington. The bill will be pre-filed in December by State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles. It would merge medical and recreational marijuana into a single state-regulated system by making the following changes:

* Home Growing – BEFORE, medical home grows could have 15 plants, recreational home grows banned, AFTER, all adults may home grow 6 plants;

* Collective Growing – BEFORE, medical collectives could grow 45 plants, AFTER, phased out, but those tax-paying collectives with business licenses can apply to be commercial producers;

* Medical Dispensaries – BEFORE, unlicensed and unregulated, AFTER, state will remove limits on number of shops and allow dispensaries to become commercial retailers;

* Marijuana taxes – BEFORE, 25 percent tax at three levels of the recreational system, AFTER, only one tax, renamed so retailers avoid federal tax penalties, and paid at retail on all marijuana, except for;

* Medical tax breaks – BEFORE, no tax on medical marijuana, AFTER, tax breaks for high-CBD marijuana and a voluntary medical registry for those who need tax breaks on high-THC marijuana;

* Retail marijuana bans – BEFORE, found to be legal by courts, AFTER, unaddressed, but changes pot tax revenue sharing to only include localities that allow retail marijuana.

Sen. Kohl-Welles bill would also reduce the buffer zone between pot shops and kid-friendly locations from 1,000 to 500 feet, opening up more potential locations. Licensed delivery of marijuana would become a reality, helping many patients with no transportation. A state cannabis board would be empaneled and licenses would be granted for the study of cannabis.

Sen. Kohl-Welles, a Democrat, has long been an advocate and ally for the medical marijuana community in Washington, despite some opposition from the extreme fringe.  Her bill will not be the only effort to reconcile medical and recreational marijuana. Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican, has also vowed to put forth legislation. The GOP has a one-seat majority in the Senate and the Democrats have a four-seat majority in the House. The momentum is toward passing something this year after last year’s failure to move legislation.

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