Medical marijuana reform proposals a good start

The OlympianOctober 30, 2013 

In the upcoming legislative session, the Legislature must merge Washington’s free-wheeling medical marijuana market into the new, tightly controlled recreational marijuana system. If lawmakers fail to adequately rein in the existing nudge-nudge wink-wink medical system, they put the whole national marijuana movement at risk.

The U.S. Department of Justice made that point crystal clear in its August memorandum giving a conditional green light to legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado.

The DOJ put the onus squarely on the Legislature to adopt strict medical marijuana regulations or lose cover from prosecution under federal drug laws. And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave no reason to think his agency might reclassify marijuana under federal law, at least for now.

The Legislature must enact stricter medical pot rules early in the 2014 session because recreational retail stores are scheduled to open next year. The single-system proposal released last week by the state departments of health and revenue and the Liquor Control Board gave lawmakers a good place to start.

Two key elements of the tri-agency plan are restricting medical marijuana sales to approved recreational stores, and establishing a patient registry maintained by the state Department of Health. In other words, merging the medical and recreation pot markets through a single licensing system.

Among states permitting medical pot, Washington is the only state without such a registry. It will exert control on the system and identify bona fide medical users who qualify for an exemption from state and local retail taxes. That acknowledges their special status within the system.

Combined with tighter definitions of qualifying conditions, the registry will finally separate users with legitimate needs from those seeking access for purely recreational purposes. That’s what the DOJ expects.

This won’t be an easy task. It requires a method of quantifying the idea of “debilitating” or “intractable” levels of pain in a way that doctors can measure and evaluate. And it involves a discussion about whether the registry should receive any exemption from the state’s public disclosure law, as other medical conditions do.

The other rules in the three-agency proposal are less controversial. Any medical authorization for people younger than 17 would require parental consent. Medical users would be allowed more quantity, but less than under current law.

The law would no longer allow home growing or collective gardens. Instead, it would steer everyone to buy through licensed stores.

Owners and users of medical marijuana dispensaries will resist this change and express concerns for patients. But new rules are essential to meet the DOJ’s expectations — and the public’s.

If the Legislature fails to create a system that successfully regulates access to marijuana, it virtually invites federal intervention. As it exists today, the medical marijuana market is a Wild West environment. It’s time for a new sheriff in town.

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