The advent of recreational marijuana legalization in 2012, approved by 54 percent of voters at the ballot box through Initiative 502, ended up being, as predicted by a few (ok, including me), the death knell for medicinal cannabis as we’ve known it in this state since 1998.
The coup de grace was last year’s passage — by lawmakers convinced not so much by the recreational I-502 merchant lobbyists, as by their “political contributions” — of SB 5052, the ironically titled “Cannabis Patient Protection Act.” That toxic piece of legislation ends all mom-and-pop medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, along with cannabis farmers’ markets, which absolutely have been the best, most affordable source of medicine in the state for years now.
It’s funny how quickly medical marijuana in Washington state suddenly became a “crisis” supposedly in need of federal intervention after I-502 was passed, at least if you listened to clueless blowhards (or to the greedy businessmen who really knew what was happening).
How did this happen? Who’s to blame?
The medical marijuana system had actually been working just fine at providing safe access for patients, with occasional glitches, since voters approved I-692 in 1998. All this safe access was accomplished with — imagine this — very few regulations and no onerous additional cannabis-only taxes, in stark contrast to the bureaucratic nightmares created by the unwieldy language and incompetent implementation of I-502.
If you listen to self-appointed “experts” like braying jackass Rectal Russ Belville — who announced a few years ago, by way of supporting the legal extinction of medical marijuana, that he was “out of patience with patients” — medical marijuana patients are actually to blame for the demise of their own community. Their stubborn refusal to fall into line with the profit-centered I-502 recreational marijuana scheme pretty much means they deserve what they got, according to Belville, who is safely across the state line in Oregon and doesn’t have to worry about his own access being endangered by his vocal stupidity.
Wanna-be leaders such as I-502’s chief author, Alison Holcomb assured the patient community that patients had nothing to worry about — the safe access of patients, which was ensured by a dual system of home grows and storefront access points, would not be impacted.
In a textbook case of just how disingenuous political statements can be, Holcomb shamelessly engaged in doublespeak. She’s claimed since at least 2013 that medical-marijuana dispensaries were always illegal to begin with, so the long-held dream, now coming to fruition, of former narcotics cop Rep. Christopher Hurst to shut down all shops, really don’t represent a “change” for medical-marijuana patients, according to Holcomb.
Try explaining that to the patients who will no longer be able to safely access the particular medicinal strains they need — or to even afford the overtaxed pot which is offered in state 502 stores. (Do you really think stores aiming at the lowest-common-denominator recreational market will prioritize keeping in stock, say, high-CBD weed, which is great for pain and inflammation but doesn’t get you high? Dream on.)
From some of the rhetoric heard, both in the Legislature from Rep. Hurst and even from Gov. Jay Inslee, you’d think that the entire medical-marijuana thing was a black-market enterprise. You’d have trouble even discerning that a medical-marijuana law — approved by an overwhelming majority of voters back in 1998 — has been in place and functional for 18 years now in this state. And you’d have a really difficult time finding out that RCW 69.51A.085 clearly allows the exchange of money for medical cannabis.
‘If relatively easy access to medical cannabis continues, the goals and potential of Initiative 502 will be undermined’
Yep, it seems the medical-marijuana law—which has been working just fine for 18 years — now needs to be “appropriately regulated.” And here’s the real reason: “If relatively easy access to medical cannabis continues, the goals and potential of Initiative 502 will be undermined,” a 2013 letter from the Seattle City Council to Gov. Inslee reads.
There’s plenty of blame to go around in a disaster like this, and it truly is a disaster when thousands of patients in the state will be hours away from the nearest legal medicine. Some of that blame rests squarely on the shoulders of former Gov. Christine Gregoire, who vetoed almost all the meaningful parts of SB 5073, a 2011 bill which would have formally legalized and regulated medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington. Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, at the time, called it “the greatest disappointment of my legislative career.”
Kohl-Welles’ game try at regulating the medical pot shops — which had sprung up statewide, especially in the Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma and Olympia areas — was gutted by Gov. Gregoire, who hen-heartedly claimed she was concerned about state employees being federally prosecuted, even though that has never happened, even once, in any state which licenses dispensaries.
That tragically missed opportunity could have made all the difference down the line; Oregon’s success at regulating medical dispensaries prior to recreational legalization has meant that the two systems of access, medical and recreational, have continued to exist side-by-side in Washington’s southern neighbor.
Of course, state Sen. Ann Rivers, who was key in pushing the evil “Cannabis Patient Protection Act” in 2015, deserves her own special spot in the Hall of Infamy for her single-minded dedication to dismantling medical marijuana in the state. Persistent rumors hold that a sketchy $50,000 contribution from a shadow organization controlled by the Washington Cannabusiness Association (WACA) was mighty persuasive. (WACA’s main lobbyist, incidentally, is also a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.) Whether or not Ann actually got paid to kill our community, Rivers did so, and doesn’t deserve any slack for the real carnage she’s helped to cause.
Before we leave the subject, we should note that the failure of Washington medical dispensaries to unite as a lobbying force, due to factionalism and distrust, was also a factor in their takedown. I-502 business interests suffered from no such handicaps, and effectively controlled the conversation and the message while the execrable SB 5052 was sailing through the Legislature last year.
It was a haunting feeling last Saturday when I walked into the Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair for one of the last times. Around the room were about a dozen stalwart vendors, many of whom I’ve known and been friends with for years, and none of whom will be allowed to legally continue what they are doing — helping patients in a very real and human way — after July 1.
Why was it so important to shut this community down? Who is being hurt here, and who is being helped? Why are corporate profits on recreational cannabis being prioritized over mom-and-pop businesses which help fellow patients obtain much-needed medicine at an affordable cost?
Those are the kinds of questions that are running through my mind as I stare straight into the maw of an ugly new kind of prohibition: The kind of prohibition that denies sick people access to affordable medicine while calling it “legalization.”
And those aren’t the only things running through my mind as MMJ winds down in my adopted state. I also have memories stretching back to 2008 of Slappy, the first medical marijuana provider in Washington state to open his doors to me after I got my Hepatitis C diagnosis and then an MMJ authorization from CannaCare (thank you, Steve Sarich). I have memories of Green Buddha, the first medical collective I ever visited in Seattle.
And I have memories beginning in 2011 of being the Seattle Weekly marijuana dispensary critic, just the second such newspaper position nationwide, after William Breathes at Denver Westword. “How does one land such a gig,” you might wonder. I got it because I was already editing the Village Voice Media-owned cannabis blog, Toke of the Town, and the Seattle Weekly was owned by the same parent company. That made me a known quantity, and in the right place at the right time; my reviews commenced in February 2011.
Those visits, beginning with Conscious Care Cooperative’s Lake Forest Park branch back in February 2011 — I remember being shocked by the $20 grams of Chem Dawg and Blue Dream, and the way a much younger patient casually tried to cut in line in front of me to pay that price — and continuing into 2014, as I visited more than 150 shops, having many positive experiences and a few bad ones. (Thanks to Viki O. who drove me to most of those places during my car-less years, and to Bobby J. who drove me to the rest of them.)
Many patients like Lisa Little of Kitsap County learned that they could effectively medicate themselves with cannabis, and then made the leap to helping others. Lisa was able to build a small business called Little Green Remedies, helping patients with individualized medications, topicals and medibles.
But family businesses like Lisa’s are being shut out by the high licensing fees, regulatory hurdles, and corporate control of Washington’s recreational marijuana market. All of the organic, artisanal mom-and-pop medical providers and dispensaries are going the way of the dodo. “The barter and trading system to allow growers to cultivate amazing organic medicine, and patients to get the best medicine possible, are now gone,” Little said.
Lisa is just one example; there are literally hundreds of other family businesses that are being destroyed in the name of corporate profits. The patients these providers have, until now, been legally able to serve are going to be in a tight spot come July 1, as the reality settles in that they’ll have to either visit I-502 stores and pay their high prices (and suffer their uncertainty about pesticides, since the state allows more than 200 and tests for none of them), or resort once again to the black market, just as it was in the bad old days.
Patients were so turned off by the way I-502 stores strong-armed the medical marijuana community out of existence, many have vowed not to set foot in I-502 stores. For some of us, though, that isn’t always a practical solution, since cannabis, for us, is medicine, as in mandatory, and not a discretionary item.
What’s Left For Patients?
After July 1, plant count limits reduce from 15 plants per authorized patient to 4 (if you choose not to be on a state registry) or 6 (if you area on the registry). Plant counts in excess of those numbers, up to 15 plants, may be recommended by the authorizing health care practitioner.
Authorized patients who do not register can grow up to four plants, and possess up to six ounces of marijuana from those plants. Qualifying patients who choose not to register will have to once again rely upon the “affirmative defense,” which means law enforcement can still arrest you, and you can still be hauled into court, where charges may be dismissed when you produce your medical marijuana authorization from a health care practitioner.
Dried marijuana limits will reduce from 24 ounces (traditionally defined as a “six week supply”) to three ounces.
Registered patients won’t have to pay state sales tax at I-502 stores; that will have little impact on affordability, however, as that won’t affect the whopping 37 percent tax required. Unregistered patients can only buy up to an ounce; registered patients can buy up to three ounces.