You may have heard two confusing things about the cannabis scene in Washington state — confusing, because they are seemingly contradictory. First, that recreational marijuana is legal here, and second, that medical marijuana has been shut down.
Yes, both of those things are pretty much true exactly as advertised. How can that be? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Washington state voters in 2012 voted to legalize recreational marijuana; when the first retail store opened in 2012, many hailed it as a great success for cannabis law reform. Now law enforcement authorities have overseen the closure of hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state, in a move sure to please black market dealers.
What in the world happened here? Why were MEDICAL dispensaries, of all things, targeted for closure, when patients actually need their cannabis for medicine instead of just wanting it to get high, like the recreational users?
Well, boys and girls, that would be because the wealthy investors who bought I-502 recreational marijuana business licenses also “bought” the law they wanted by applying generous campaign contributions to their favorite legislators down in Olympia.
When their competition, i.e., the mom-and-pop medical marijuana dispensaries, cleaned their clocks on both price and quality — not to mention the sense of community on the medical side, especially in the farmers’ markets, and the real expertise they offered when it comes to addressing symptoms with specific strains — the recreational stores were so annoyed, they literally had the competition outlawed.
All those bribes, I mean “campaign” cash, got them SB 5052, a 2015 law ironically called the “Patient Protection Act” that supposedly “merged” the recreational and medical marijuana markets, propping up the former by outlawing and destroying the latter.
Part of SB 5052 is a strictly enforced cap on the number of permitted retailers, reports J.D. Tuccille at Reason.com, and that means that areas which heretofore have had plenty of safe access for patients won’t really be that way anymore.
For example, there’s Tacoma, one of the cities where new licensing regulations had a huge impact on patient access, almost inevitably making life harder for people who are already struggling with chronic or terminal illness, and, oh, by the way, creating a huge opportunity for those who are willing to work in the black market — that is to say, the unlicensed underground.
“Last August, there were close to 70 unlicensed operators in Tacoma,” according to Candice Ruud at The News Tribune. “Tacoma is limited by the state to 16 retail licenses, and a recent city ordinance requires every retail operator to also get a medical endorsement to provide for those with medical needs.”
So, just to use the example of one major city, a market that kept 70 businesses going is somehow supposed to now provide medicine for patients with just 16 stores, because the rest were shut down by state government order as of July 1, 2016.
Across the state, “the former retail store cap of 334 was lifted to a new cap of 556. The recommendation followed an analysis of the entire marijuana marketplace by the state’s contracted research organization, BOTEC Analysis Corporation,” according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.
“This sort of micromanaged legal-but-only-sort-of market is a characteristic of state officials who were forced to change the law by voters and not as a matter of their own preferences,” Tuccille rightly points out. “To carefully control the implementation of the voters’ will, they brought in a consultant who perfectly reflected their reluctance: public policy professor Mark Kleiman.
The enigmatic Kleiman is a something of a middle-of-the-road guy on the marijuana issue, favoring legal reform out of a belief that full prohibition has been counter-productive — not as a weed cheerleader or out of a commitment to “personal choice.”
Black market dealers, of course, do well when restrictions drive up prices or restrict availability. And SB 5052 does and has done both of those things very effectively, leaving an opportunity for black market vendors who are willing to break the law to satisfy consumer demand.
“As a former dope dealer myself, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that severely restricting the availability of ‘legal’ marijuana (and otherwise jacking the price with a 37 percent excise tax) creates a wonderful opportunity for black market dealers,” Tuccille writes. “Even before the latest change, Washington’s underground economy in marijuana was thriving despite its nominally legal status.”
“Washington’s impossible scheme for a centrally planned market in marijuana creates a breeding ground for a completely unplanned and illegal market in the stuff,” Tuccille said.