Medical marijuana cooperative owner in Bellingham calls bill before Inslee ‘devastating’

Advocates are gathering signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot they said would save and strengthen medical marijuana in Washington state, even as a bill to overhaul the market was approved by the Legislature earlier this week and sent to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

“This bill is devastating. We had the best medical law in the country and we’ve lost that,” said Hugh H. Newmark, owner of Best Buds Collective Garden in Bellingham, of Senate Bill 5052.

Newmark, who opened Best Buds nearly six months ago, is helping to gather signatures to put Initiative 1372 before Washington state voters in November. At least 246,372 registered voters must sign the petition by July 2 to qualify for the ballot. The initiative aims to keep medical marijuana as a separate system.

“It’s doable. It’s tough, but it’s doable,” Newmark said of the number of needed signatures. He is a co-sponsor of the initiative.

Seattle resident Kirk Ludden, who described himself as a cannabis reform activist, is the primary sponsor of I-1372.

“I’m a patient. I have no special interest. I am a patient fighting for the right of others,” Ludden said, adding that he also was fighting for the medicine that saved his life.

Among its provisions, the initiative would create a seven-member board to license and regulate the growing, processing and sale of medical cannabis; impose fees on those getting licenses; provide tax exemptions for medical cannabis; and allow minors to use cannabis for medical reasons with parental approval.

If the measure doesn’t get enough signatures this year, Ludden said he’ll try again.

“I know this will become law eventually because I ain’t going to stop until it does,” he added.

Ludden also didn’t like changes included in Senate Bill 5052, which would put medical marijuana under greater scrutiny and provide the regulatory oversight now found in the recreational market.

State voters approved marijuana for medical use in 1998. They approved recreational marijuana in 2012, and the first stores opened in July.

In addition to setting up a voluntary patient database, Senate Bill 5052 also would eliminate collective gardens starting July 1, 2016, in exchange for four-patient cooperatives that would have to be registered with the state. Such collectives couldn’t be within one mile of a licensed pot store, which could get a medical endorsement to sell to patients under 5052.

The measure would allow the renamed Liquor and Cannabis Board to grant licenses to existing collectives, using a merit system that would consider such things as whether the collective paid business taxes or had a business license.

Like Newmark, Ludden opposed the voluntary patient registry, saying it violated patients’ rights. (Patients not on the registry can’t possess as much marijuana as those who are, and the measure reduces the amount of cannabis patients are allowed overall.)

Ludden also said he was against folding a 17-year-old medical market for sick people into a new for-profit recreational market.

Newmark agreed that more regulations were needed, but said SB 5052 would harm patients in part because “prices are going to go way up.”

Some recreational businesses are cheering the proposed changes. They’ve said that unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries are undercutting their business because their prices are lower than those in the higher-taxed recreational industry.

“It’s going to level the playing field. That’s probably the biggest thing. We’re going to be competing on the same level,” said Aaron Nelson, senior vice president of operations for 2020 Solutions, which has two recreational pot stores in Bellingham.

The measure was a step in the right direction, he said.

“Eliminating the unregulated portion of the pseudo-legal marijuana market is probably the biggest positive outcome for this legislation,” Nelson said.

John Evich, a past investor in retail store Top Shelf Cannabis in Bellingham, said regulations for medical marijuana were “pretty loose” but he was troubled by some aspects of the bill now before Inslee.

“Medical cannabis is pretty open, but work with them and come up with some stricter regulations,” Evich said. “Somehow there’s got to be a happy medium where everybody gets along.”

He said the measure was akin to legislators writing “a bill that shuts down Pepsi-Cola but leaves Coca-Cola open.”

“It needs to be looked into instead of rushed and I think it needs to be voted on by the people,” Evich said.