State needs strict cannabis rules to allay concerns

The OlympianMarch 4, 2014 

Cannabis plants are kept in several storage areas at The Healing Center, a medicinal marijuana dispensary in downtown Olympia.

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian

The deadline for the Legislature to merge the state’s medical marijuana and recreation markets is approaching quickly. Starting this week, the Liquor Control Board will issue licenses for growers and processors. Next month it will hand out licenses for retail stores that will open in June.

Before that can happen without intervention from the federal Department of Justice, state legislators must get the nudge-nudge-wink-wink medical marijuana market under control.

The U.S. Department of Justice made that point crystal clear in an August memorandum that gave the 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.

It’s a more difficult task in Washington, because our medical marijuana market is essentially unregulated. We’re the Wild West in comparison to the 20-plus other states that allow use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

It’s been estimated that 90 percent of cannabis sold for ostensibly medical purposes is consumed recreationally. That seems high, and it’s unsubstantiated.

But it’s less likely the actual percentage is zero, and that’s what the DOJ expects.

It’s interesting to note that the medical marijuana market ballooned in 2011 when naturopathic physicians were added to the list of providers who could issue cards.

The House and Senate have corresponding bills to combine the two cannabis markets. Of the two, we prefer the House version because it is more restrictive.

House Bill 2149 would allow all qualifying patients to grow cannabis for their own use, but reduces the number of plants at any one time from 15 to three flowering and three non-flowering plants.

That’s an adequate amount for personal medicinal use, and more adequately addresses the federal concern about excess cannabis being sold on the black market and finding its way across state borders.

The final blended bill sent to the governor’s desk should establish a patient registry and impose other controls. Every other medical marijuana state already has a registry. Without it, there’s no way to identify bona fide medical users who qualify for an exemption from state and local retail taxes, as opposed to those buying for purely recreational purposes.

We believe all legal cannabis sales, for medical or recreational purposes, should flow through state licensed stores.

If there is sufficient legitimate demand for the low-hallucinogenic, high-analgesic cannabis preferred by medical users, retail stores will provide it. And medical users will have the option of growing their own.

When reconciling the House and Senate cannabis bills, lawmakers should opt for greater regulation and more restrictive rules.

Once Washington proves its medical users are no longer feeding the illegal market, state regulators may be able to ease back. But for now, we must remember that cannabis legalization remains an experiment that continues under the wary eye of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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