Q&A With WA NORML Executive Director Kevin Oliver

WASHINGTON: As the so-called long session begins in Olympia, all eyes in Washington’s cannabis turn toward possible tweaks to I-502 licensed businesses and the future of medical marijuana.  MJ News Network asked Washington NORML’s Executive Director Kevin Oliver to give his predictions on what the coming year portends for Washington’s cannabis community.

Q: Many I-502 licensees complain both about the high tax rates on marijuana, and the special burdens of an excise tax. Can we expect any relief in the upcoming legislative session?

A: The legal adult possession and use of marijuana, as well as the taxed and legally regulated production, processing and sale of marijuana by WSLCB licensed businesses, will continue to roll out at an increased pace as protocols are streamlined and bugs in the licensing processes ironed out. Additionally, the legislature could collapse the current tax rate from a three tier system to one tax and in so doing lower the overall tax burden to marijuana businesses. Also, there seems to be a broad base of support to change the definition of the tax from an excise tax, (which disallows it being deducted from income on federal taxes), to a sales or trust fund tax, thereby allowing marijuana businesses to deduct state taxes from federal taxes.

Q: What is the future for Washington’s hundreds of unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries?

A: It is very apparent that the current iteration of medical marijuana dispensaries – unlicensed and unregulated – are not viewed as legal or necessary by law makers or law enforcement. This will become increasingly clear as the legislature decides the best course of action for unlicensed commercial marijuana operations. The sick and dying deserve affordable access to quality marijuana, and it is my feeling that the legislature will take steps to ensure that access is provided in a legally regulated market.

Q: And what will that mean for the patients who depend on medical cannabis?

A: I do not believe that patients will suffer from regulation, indeed, every patient I know has, at one time or another, purchased moldy or buggy pot from a dispensary. That is not to say that some dispensaries are not on par with the best practices of quality control and selection that come standard to legal retail stores. It is only to say that, presently, dispensaries have as much liability and regulation as lemonade stands.

And, patients will always get their marijuana – especially here in WA. Marijuana, whether regulated or not, is ubiquitous to any state and almost every country in the world. It always has been and always will be. So, it seems rather elitist for dispensary owners and their suppliers, who either didn’t win a sweepstakes for a retail storefront or opted out of the license application process altogether, to suggest that the estimated 103,000 patients with a valid doctors recommendation in this state, (only a percentage of whom actually use dispensaries), will not be adequately serviced without them –especially when another few hundred legally licensed retail stores are going to be opened up this year with tons of high quality marijuana stocking their shelves.

Presently, there are proposals in the legislature that would allow the WA Department of Health to certify retail stores to sell marijuana as medicine to those patients with a valid recommendation.

Q:   Will we see new legislation this session addressing the local zoning and moratoria that have effectively banned legal marijuana operations in 40% of the state?

A: Legislatively, in regards to zoning and moratoria, a line item could be added to the law, as the AG has suggested, forcing those rogue municipalities that have decided to ban or put a moratoria on state licensed marijuana businesses to comply with the voter approved state law.

Additionally, some of those municipalities are lobbying for revenue sharing of I-502 taxes, therby competing with the state general fund for those revenues which were earmarked for the state sponsored health care program that was replaced by the Affordable Health care Act.

There is also a bill to disallow, statewide, any marijuana business on property zoned R-5. That designation may be logical for residential zones, but certainly are not necessary in rural zones that presently allow other forms of commerce.

Q:   How will 2015 set us up for the 2016 national elections?

A: From a national perspective, 2016 looks to be a game changer for marijuana reform. First of all, this year (2015), California will have at least one successful citizen proposition qualify for the ballot. It will win, as it will be tailored conservatively (relative to CA) to get the largest percentage of voters possible, much like I-502. And as California goes, so goes the country.

Second, 2015 will see some movement in the US congress, probably in regards to the issue of banking. On the front lines of that is WA’s own Denny Heck, who, as a freshman Representative last year, took the lead to sponsor the marijuana banking act. We can anticipate similar legislation this year and hopefully, with the addition of Oregon and Alaska (not to mention D.C.) along with several more states bound to legalize in the next few years, we will see a banking bill get traction.

Finally, it is entirely possible that President Obama could re-schedule marijuana after the 2016 election, which would allow pharmaceutical companies to market patented cannabinoid products within the frame work of modern western medicine.