Medical marijuana advocates rallied at the state capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Wednesday to “save medical cannabis in Washington,” arguing that proposed changes to medical marijuana laws would hurt patients.
Nothing is official yet, but medical marijuana advocates say that the prescription drug may soon be taxed in Washington — and they fear they will be charged the same tax rate as recreational users.
The new tax is included in a working draft of rules for Initiative 502, which was passed in November 2012 and legalized 1 ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and older. The official draft of the state’s new marijuana rules is expected to be released on July 3, and a public hearing on the rules will be held on August 7.
The state’s Liquor Control Board, which has been tasked with setting up and regulating the industry, gave residents until June 10 to provide input regarding how they thought the law should look.
An updated draft was to be released by mid-June, but a deluge of written comments just before the deadline led the agency to ask for a two-week extension to “consider the last-minute input we’ve received.”
Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington state since 1998. Under state law, patients can legally possess a 60-day supply of marijuana, which is defined as up to 24 ounces of useable marijuana and 15 plants. Patients younger than the age of 21 years were also able to qualify for the medical marijuana program, and since it was not legal to buy or sell the drug — only to possess it — no tax was charged.
But all of that may soon be changing as the state begins to implement recreational marijuana laws and puts regulation of the entire green industry — both recreational and medical — in the hands of the state Liquor Control Board.
I-502 supporters were aware that the state’s Liquor Control Board would be in charge of regulating the recreational industry, but were told that the medical marijuana industry would be left alone. Several state websites, including the Seattle Police Department, confirmed this.
The Liquor Control Board even stated on its website that no changes would be made to the state medical marijuana program, but it seems the group has since had a change of heart.
Recently the Liquor Control Board called medical marijuana’s tax-free status a “threat” to the state’s projected revenue stream and say they plan to tax it. If taxed, marijuana would be the only medication in the state that was taxed, as Washington state law prohibits the taxation of medications that require a prescription from a medical professional.
According to the San Juan Islander, marijuana advocates took issue with a statement from the Liquor Control Board’s director that “90 percent of the medical cannabis patients are fakers and have no qualifying medical condition.”
“Patients were furious when they read his totally unfounded statement. Do we really want the state agency that is denigrating patients to be put in charge of regulating patient’s medication?” said John Novak, a member of the board of directors for the Cannabis Defense Coalition.
Like Novak, Joanna McKee is a board member of the Cannabis Defense Coalition and the founder of the medical marijuana co-op Green Cross. She said that the decision to tax marijuana is a step backward in recognizing the medicinal benefits of the plant.
Other controversial changes the board has announced include banning the sale of “concentrates,” which are concentrated forms of marijuana that contain very little plant material. Popular concentrates include oils and crystals that can be smoked but are also used topically and in food.
“Many severely ill patients, including those fighting cancer, depend on concentrates like Rick Simpson Oil to stay alive. Denying these patients medicine is cruel and immoral, especially in our state,” said Stephanie Viskovich, director of the Cannabis Action Coalition on the concentrate ban.
Medical advocates oppose recreational legalization
Though concern that medical marijuana patients won’t be able to afford their medication is real, medical marijuana advocates throughout the U.S. are often against recreational legalization. Their reasons are as varied as strains of marijuana.
The Cannabis Action Coalition, an organization that defends horticultural, industrial, medical, religious and scientific uses of marijuana in Washington state, was a strong opponent of I-502.
“I know that patients and their providers would welcome common sense regulations. We’re simply asking legislators to work with us in developing these regulations, rather than turning over decisions that impact our medical care to the state’s liquor distributor. I think this is a reasonable request and we hope the legislature is listening.” Sarich, the coalition’s executive director, said. “No other medication is regulated and controlled by the Liquor Control Board. The LCB members are totally unqualified to determine what is, or isn’t, in the best medical interest of cannabis patients. If any of these legislators found out tomorrow that their mother had cancer, would any of them want to call the Liquor Control Board to help decide on the best treatment options for their loved one?”
Beyond taxing marijuana for medical marijuana patients, Sarich says that unless something is done to stop it, the Liquor Control Board is likely to make other changes to restrict patients’ access to medical marijuana.
Even with public input and Wednesday’s rally, the controversial new rules for medical marijuana may not go away.
Reuven Carlyle, a Washington state representative representing Seattle, defends the expansion of a marijuana tax to include medical marijuana.
“We as a state will fail unequivocally at a well-regulated and well-taxed system if we don’t treat it as one market,” Carlyle said to Reuters. “I appreciate and acknowledge the sensitive position that medical marijuana patients are in, but there are ways to support them without providing a blanket exemption from all taxation.”
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