WASHINGTON: As Washington begins to accept applications for the state’s first regulated recreational pot shops, cries of protest about the its plans for medical marijuana are coming from unexpected quarters: the left. A year after voters put their state on track to become one of the only places in the world where marijuana can be legally owned and sold for purely recreational use, the state legislature still has to decide what to do with its rickety, fifteen-year-old medical-marijuana system. With the Department of Justice’s hawkish eyes trained on the state—determined to ensure that the drug, which is still illegal under federal law—remains under strict control, some bureaucrats and lawmakers are afraid that Washington’s unregulated medical-marijuana system could doom the whole experiment.
In October, a working group commissioned by the legislature recommended that lawmakers should fold regulation of medical marijuana into the new recreational system, with a tax break for patients but few other concessions, like a personal growing exception for medical use or separate stores for therapeutic weed. The new framework would also scale back pot patients’ existing privileges, reducing the amount of marijuana they can possess at a given time and cutting back on the diseases that qualify for a medical card. Patients, many of whom wanted the state to establish a separate regulatory system for therapeutic pot, were outraged. “People all over the world are watching and they’re about to see us wipe out medical marijuana,” says Kari Boiter, a medical-marijuana patient and activist. “What kind of message does that send to other states who are thinking about legalizing marijuana?”
The question facing Washington is one that will vex legalizers for years to come: Should medical marijuana be regulated differently than recreational weed? Advocates for pot’s therapeutic benefits certainly think so; some doctors even believe that researching marijuana’s medical benefits should be a higher priority than full legalization. In Colorado, which also legalized pot in 2012, medical dispensaries will remain separate from the new retail stores, although entrepreneurs can receive dual licenses and sell both kinds of marijuana under the same roof. But if Washington’s legislature, which will consider changes to the state’s medical-marijuana law when it convenes in January, follows the working group’s advice, patients will be expected to frequent the state-regulated stores—under the auspices of the Liquor Control Board—for medical pot, something that some feel is akin to filling a prescription at your local liquor store.
There’s no doubt that Washington’s legislature needs to do something—anything—to mend the state’s reputation as pot’s “Wild, Wild West.” Since 1998, when Washington became one of the first five states to legalize pot for medical use, the state’s medical-marijuana law has been a perennial headache for legislators and reform advocates alike. Unlike Colorado, which created a regulatory system for medical marijuana in 2009, Washington failed to establish any of the protections that, for the most part, kept federal agents out of other states’ hair.
There was no registry for patients or physicians, making it impossible for the state to track who was getting medical marijuana and who was prescribing it. In 2011, in a bid to rein in its quasi-legal marijuana market, the Washington legislature passed a bipartisan bill, establishing a regulatory system for medical marijuana dispensaries and requiring patients to register with the state. But the governor, fearful that state employees responsible for issuing the dispensaries’ licenses would face repercussions from the feds, vetoed much of the bill, leaving “collective gardens”—unlicensed co-ops where patients would band together to grow large quantities of marijuana—as their primary source of pot. Quickly, gardens began to spring up next to each other, looking a lot like commercial grow operations. Just as swiftly, federal agents began raiding the collectives. Local police joined in on the crackdown, claiming that the co-ops were fronts for covert illegal businesses, and thus in violation of state law.