Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington state since 1998, but new recreational marijuana laws are threatening not only patients’ rights, but also their access to medicine.
Almost six months after the passage of Initiative 502, medical marijuana advocates in Washington state rallied outside of the state capitol in order to “save medical cannabis in Washington.”
They argued that proposed changes to medical marijuana laws would hurt patients by lumping the medical program in with the state’s new recreational marijuana laws instead of creating separate recreational rules from the 14-year-old medical program.
Despite a fervent pushback from medical marijuana advocates to state lawmakers with about eight days remaining in the legislative session, it appears that medical marijuana patients may be the first group in the U.S. to be awarded fewer rights under the new recreational marijuana legalization laws.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington state since 1998. Under current state law, patients can legally possess a 60-day supply of marijuana, which is defined as up to 24 ounces of useable marijuana, including edibles, oils, topicals etc., as well as 15 plants. Patients under 21 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.
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 also stated on its website that no changes would be made to the state’s medical marijuana program, but it seems the group has had a change of heart. Now several medical marijuana advocates are saying “I told you so,” and fighting to keep the changes from being put into place.
Under two pieces of proposed bipartisan legislation in the state (H.B. 2149, S.B. 5887), a medical marijuana patient would be required to register as a medical marijuana patient and would only be allowed to have a week’s supply of marijuana, which the state has determined to be no more than 3 ounces. The legislation also reduces the number of plants a patient can grow in their home from 15 to six and eliminates collective gardens.
Kari Boiter, a Washington state coordinator for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said the irony is that I-502 was passed in order to make it easier and safer for recreational users to use marijuana, but it has created a whole new set of restrictions for patients.
“I think from a national perspective what is striking is that we just legalized marijuana for each and every adult,” Boiter said, noting that this is a piece of legislation that is actually going to make it harder for patients to get what they need.
Boiter said Colorado is proof that parallel recreational and medical programs can coexist without hampering patients’ access to their medicine.
Kris Hermes, media specialist for ASA, agreed that while I-502 restricts and eliminates patients’ rights, Colorado’s recreational legalization law included a provision allowing recreational users to cultivate for themselves, making it less likely that the state legislature would take that right away from patients.
“The problem is (I-502’s) rules were written for a recreational (legalization) model and written to prevent harm and substance abuse,” Boiter said.
Since medical marijuana patients are not using harmful pharmaceuticals, Boiter said there are competing objectives at play, which is why the state has to relax the rules for medical marijuana patients in order to ensure the needs of patients will be met when recreational sales begin in June 2015.
“In the name of making legalization work for everyone,” we’re taking away the rights of medical marijuana patients, she said, adding that the state needs to put “health before happy hour.”
Issue of perception
But Kevin Oliver, a board member of both the Washington state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, as well as the national NORML board, said that while he wished the state would have left its medical marijuana program alone, he believes the new rules are not as devastating to patients as some medical marijuana advocates are leading the public to believe.
While Oliver and the medical marijuana advocates have mutual respect for one another, he stressed they are approaching the issue from entirely different perspectives. Medical proponents are looking at the restrictions being placed on the program, while others, including himself, see the new laws as a way to fashion Washington state’s medical program in a manner similar to those programs that exist in 19 other states and Washington, D.C.
For example, as far as the registry component is concerned, Oliver said, Washington state is currently the only state that has legalized medical marijuana that does not have a medical registry, and that patients in Washington are not different from those in other states — all deserve compassion.
“Yes, it’s sad to have lived here and see the good liberal marijuana laws that don’t require a registry,” Oliver said, but in order for marijuana to be legal, it has to be taxed and regulated. “If everyone wants it, you have to tax it, stamp it, and regulate it,” to satisfy all parties.
“The sick and dying will still have access (to their medicine) because compassionate folks will take care of those people,” he said.
Since marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, with the Drug Enforcement Administration conducting frequent raids in states such as California that have had a legal medical marijuana market for almost 20 years, Boiter argued that forcing patients to register in a database that could easily be handed to local, state or federal law enforcement officials, is dangerous and nerve-wracking for many.
She said the registry requirement was especially concerning given that every adult in the state aged 21 and older can purchase marijuana without registering, which puts the patients in a very vulnerable state.
Another source of concern for advocates like Boiter is where medical marijuana patients will be able to buy their medicine and how much it is going to cost them now that they will be competing with recreational users for their marijuana supply — that they have to buy on a weekly basis.
“No one buys medicine every week,” Boiter said. “It’s not going to work to have a one week supply at a time.”
Under the state’s medical marijuana program, dispensaries were not legally allowed to open, but with recreational legalization, the state opted to allow pot shops. The state wanted to ensure that there weren’t more dispensaries than coffee shops, as is the case in California, so they limited the number of retail licenses that would be issued to 334 for the entire state.
The license application process is now closed, with the Liquor Control Board issuing licenses based on jurisdictions. Now, what worries some, like Boiter, is that the state’s attorney general is allowing cities to ban dispensaries. As a result, some of those people who were issued retail licenses to provide marijuana for a certain area of the state are no longer able to do so, which Boiter said means the 75-year-old grandma who has terminal cancer is now forced to grow her own marijuana.
As Boiter mentioned, some patients don’t have the know-how or the ability to grow their own plants, and even if they did, the plants take about six months to flower. “These patients need it now,” Boiter said.
In regard to price, Boiter said a gram of marijuana, which now costs patients $10, is expected to cost $40 because of increased demand for the product and taxes.
Washington state law prohibits the taxation of medications that require a prescription from a medical professional, but last year the Liquor Control Board called medical marijuana’s tax-free status a “threat” to the state’s projected revenue stream and said they planned to tax the medicine.
Oliver thinks that even with increased demand, patients will only have to pay $15 for access to their medicine. “The price is going to be the same,” he said, since “the production price is going to decrease.”
“I have confidence it is going to work out,” Oliver said. “I have sympathy for some of the patients, but I think that the reason it is threatened now is not because of 502, it is because medical marijuana has been built as a house of cards and the (state) legislature is knocking it down.”
Though Oliver recognizes that the restrictions are unfortunate for patients and sympathizes with them, he said it’s also important to remember the people in the industry who are now concerned they are not going to make any money, and that those under the age of 21 caught using marijuana are more likely to go into treatment instead of jail, which would allow young kids to be able to go to college.