OLYMPIA, WA– Washington’s unregulated medical cannabis market is set to be rolled into the heavily-taxed recreational cannabis program when Gov. Jay Inslee signs the Cannabis Patient Protection Act (Senate Bill 5052), passed this week by the legislature. Officially, quality control is the driving force behind the regulatory revamp, but activists claim the bill signals a crackdown on “collective gardens,” effectively ending the right of many patients to cultivate their own medicine.
Senate Bill 5052 would eliminate collective gardens starting July 1, 2016, and instead permit four-patient registered “cooperatives,” to grow up to 60 plants, no closer than one mile from a state-licensed cannabis retailer. The bill will replace the existing Liquor Control Board with a new agency, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, which will issue “merit-based” licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivators. Growers will now be required to test their products for mold and other impurities.
Collective gardens multiplied throughout Washington after medical marijuana entrepreneurs took advantage of wishy-washy regulations to set up illegal dispensary operations. Washington law initially permitted a patient to possess and cultivate a “60-day supply,” which was eventually defined as 24 ounces (a pound and a half) and 15 plants. People who did not want to grow their own had to find a “designated provider” to legally supply them with medical marijuana. Storefront dispensaries sprang up with patients signing a note to make the clerk at the counter their “designated provider.” The clerk would offer some free cannabis to the patient who would then be moved to donate money to reimburse the caregiver’s costs of production.
Raids and attempts by city regulators closed down a number of illegal dispensaries and brought about calls for order to the medical marijuana market in Washington. In 2011 SB5073 defined legal dispensaries and created a voluntary statewide patient registry with medical marijuana cards. It also provided the legal basis for collective gardens, permitting 10 patients to pool resources and grow up to 45 marijuana plants. Collective gardens have proliferated ever since.
Since Washington legalized recreational cannabis, rec. businesses have complained that they are disadvantaged by dispensaries offering untaxed alternatives. During the legislative session, lawmakers agreed that the gardens and medical marijuana dispensaries were “unfair competition” to the so-called “502 stores” and the state must eliminate unregulated, unlicensed growers to give patients a “clean supply and an adequate supply.”
In December 2014, retiring LCB chairwoman Sharon Foster told KUOW FM reporter Marcie Sillman, “I think the medical marijuana market is out of control… People ought to know that it’s well tested and it’s not full of bad things that can happen in a growing operation.” Foster opined that people were probably willing to pay a higher price for having “security in the product they’re buying.” These comments came on the heels of an admission by Foster that she used pot brownies in preference to oxycodone for pain control after a knee replacement surgery.
Senate Bill 5052 would create a database of patients and extend availability of medical marijuana to registered patients aged 18 and upward (only adults 21 and over can buy any type of marijuana in the state at present). Registration is voluntary, but unregistered patients would not be permitted to possess the same amounts of cannabis and will not receive the tax breaks offered to registered patients.
With some 200 pesticides allowed for state-licensed cannabis cultivation, concerns have been raised about patients with compromised immune systems. Lawmakers point out that patients registered in the new database would be permitted to grow six plants of their own.