OMNICANNABIS: The WA State Senate Made Behemoth Pot Legislation, And It May Be Too Big To Fail

by Bailey Hirschburg

WASHINGTON: In lawmaking jargon, omnibus legislation is a single bill that has lots of topics or issues with a loose theme. Anything can be, but until recently marijuana was usually part of a omnibus drug/crime bills, not the centerpiece. The common attitude at the Capital in Olympia is that bills shouldn’t be so large that individual changes avoid debate or examination. Omnibus is a great way to sneak in changes or spending that might not withstand public scrutiny.

And so we have Engrossed Second Substitute Bill 5131, (ESSB 5131 for short, and the bill begs for shortness.) what House Majority Whip Jessyn Farrell’s called the state Senate’s “one stop shop” for marijuana legislation.

5131 started as an 11 page senate bill. It amended four sections of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) and created a new one. This revised some notifications, changed some jurisdictional requirements for court cases, and most controversially, removed the merit-based part of the application for marijuana licensees that was intended to prioritize experienced and professional staff from former medical dispensaries into the combined medical/recreational marijuana system. The application process faced lawsuits and complaints that the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) had unfair expectations and was the wrong agency to secure adequate patient access.

ESSB 5131 is now a 32 page bill amending 10 sections of the RCW, adds new sections to three other chapters, reenacts and amends two chapters, and creates multiple new sections. This covered everything in the original bill, as well as immunity for LCB staff enforcing the state’s controlled substances act, limits on marijuana advertising, seed sales to patients directly from licensed producers, hemp research, allowing marijuana consulting and branding contracts, and even more. During last week’s public hearing in the House Commerce & Gaming committee, 5131’s original sponsor, Sen. Ann Rivers inspired confidence by saying “the reality is it’s always good for me to listen to what’s in this bill because it has grown, and grown, and grown,”

5131 grew by taking parts from other bills that hadn’t been introduced or acted on in the Senate. It passed the Senate unanimously because, as Rivers described says, it was a “one vote wonder” that allowed every senator to hold their nose and vote for some part of it. “Rip the band-aid off and let the wound air out.” she explained. A graphic and telling metaphor for the Senate’s views on weed almost four and a half years after voters legalized it. “I wish there were a better way for me to say it but that’s just the most appropriate way I could think of.”

As an interested lobbyist on this issue, I wish there was a better way of imagining the citizens, patients, businesses, and communities impacted by legal marijuana than a scab. When I asked a Commerce & Gaming committee member if senators crammed everything into 5131 to avoid being on record on its individual components, he suggested that because every bill needs to be discussed in caucuses, the republican majority caucus in the senate simply didn’t want to thoroughly discuss each issue.

But most disappointing is after four years, our senators will gladly take sin-tax money from legal pot while still looking down on those paying up. Marijuana consumers will pay for 1.76% of Washington’s budget from 2017-2019 while struggling to get 1% of their senator’s consideration. It’s an immature attitude from what should be a high-minded institution.

The truth is there is good and bad in ESSB 5131. I testified on behalf of WA NORML PAC as “other” urging them to change language relating to seed/clone access for authorized patients, billboard advertising, and what information is exempted from public disclosure. A subsequent striker amendment (one which largely removes language from a bill) increased seed/clone access to patients, maintained billboard use for directions, and removes problematic language that would have removed financial considerations from being publicly disclosed. These changes will have to be passed by the house and voted on again by the senate. 

In the end, I’m left feeling much like our nose-holding senate, there’s enough that I like in ESSB 5131 to make it worth passing. But in rushing to remove the band-aid from this wound, Washington Senators sacrificed transparency and quality for quantity and speed. This one vote wonder has grown, but is it too big to fail?

Read over the bill, watch the hearings, and contact lawmakers with your reactions to ESSB 5131 by going here: