Merging medical marijuana into the recreational pot industry in Washington state is making for a rough transition.
“It’s not as smooth as one would hope, but nothing about being a trailblazer is easy. It’s all about adaptability,” said Danielle Rosellison, co-owner of Trail Blazin’ Productions, a marijuana grower in Bellingham.
Medical marijuana businesses face some big challenges. Users are leery of being entered into a state database, and patients are balking at high costs that now include a 37 percent excise tax. Also, labs are not yet in place to fully test medical marijuana, and some consider state Department of Health requirements for medical-grade cannabis to be onerous.
Rosellison is part The Cannabis Alliance, an effort to organize the medical marijuana industry so it has a united voice locally and statewide.
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“All hope is not lost. We will get there,” she said. “Medical’s standards in Washington will be raised and patients’ needs will be met. It’s just not going to be timely, and there will be this murky period for the next few years.”
To have access to medical marijuana, patients still must have certain qualifying conditions and get their health care practitioner to approve its use.
Medical marijuana, which had been largely unregulated, is being combined with the regulated recreational pot industry, which state voters essentially created by approving Initiative 502 in 2012.
Dispensaries that didn’t, or couldn’t, get approval from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board to sell medical marijuana were required to close by July 1, the date for the public rollout for the combined systems. That was when approved businesses could sell both recreational and medical pot.
Challenges during transition
Seventeen businesses in Whatcom County have received the OK from the state board to sell medical marijuana, most of them recreational pot stores.
Among them is 2020 Solutions, which has two recreational pot stores. Both have received medical endorsements from the state.
Aaron Nelson, senior vice president of operations for 2020 Solutions, said at least 10 employees have gone through state-required training to be medical marijuana consultants, which allows them, in part, to enter patients’ information into a database, to create medical marijuana cards for patients (also called recognition cards), and to help patients select products. They are not allowed to give medical advice.
To have access to medical marijuana, patients still must have certain qualifying conditions including cancer and Crohn’s disease and get their health care practitioner to approve its use.
As of Friday, July 15, a total of 69 stores — out of 341with medical endorsements — in the state had a medical marijuana consultant on staff and were issuing recognition cards.
A total of 1,665 patient cards have been issued for adults so far and two for minors, according to the state Department of Health.
The transition from medical to recreational was a very expensive endeavor. It was essentially like starting a new business.
Todd Russell, co-founder, Herbal Legends Cannabis in Bellingham
Nelson said the stores were as ready as could be expected.
But he said getting products that meet the state definition of what is medically compliant has been a challenge. Labs didn’t ramp up in time to test for heavy metals and microtoxins because those rules weren’t finalized until recently, Nelson said. Products already on the shelves have been tested for potency, molds and other contaminants.
“We are working very diligently with our suppliers to get product that is compliant as soon as it’s available,” Nelson said, adding that they have products that work, though they don’t have the medically compliant stamp. “We’re committed to taking care of patients through this transition.”
Rosellison said no labs have been certified to test for all of the requirements yet.
“And certainly not one lab that could do all of it, so now you’re sending multiple samples to multiple labs, which just increases the cost to the patient even more,” she said. “The whole thing is so frustrating.”
The Cannabis Alliance, which Rosellison is part of, recently surveyed growers and found that 61 percent said they produce pot that could qualify as medical grade. But less than 17 percent said they would have cannabis that met state’s rules ready by the July 1 deadline.
Rosellison called the Department of Health’s rules “onerous” and, as a result, her Trail Blazin’ shop won’t get medically certified at this time.
Her concerns include the state requirement that growers destroy an entire harvest if it comes back contaminated in any way.
“If you’re an outdoor farmer, what if the wind brings pesticides from a nearby apple orchard? If you’re an indoor farmer, what if the bud that I randomly pick was touching the wall of the room, which just got cleaned with cleaner, and thus fails? What if the lab gets a false positive, which definitely happens? Most growers would go under if they had to destroy an entire harvest,” she said.
Instead, Trail Blazin’ will continue to simply post lab test results for its strains on its website.
From dispensary to store
Todd Russell’s medical marijuana dispensary on James Street in Bellingham was among the few to make the transition, able to get both a recreational license and an endorsement under the new state rules.
“The transition from medical to recreational was a very expensive endeavor. It was essentially like starting a new business,” said Russell, who co-founded the business with his brother.
It started as medical marijuana collective named Healthy Living Center. They changed the name to Herbal Legends Cannabis after getting a state license and can now sell both recreational and medical marijuana. He said patients were confused by the changes, including having their name in the state database even if it’s voluntary.
“Your cannabis use is now tracked. It’s in the system and it’s accessible to several state agencies,” Russell said. “I understand there’s a need to regulate but sometimes it’s a little overreaching. I think those things will work out as time goes on.”
Before merging into the new system, the collective grew its own marijuana, and had it tested for its patients. But they no longer can do that, losing several hundred thousand dollars they’d invested, according to Russell.
He said Herbal Legends is seeing a lot of its former patients come back and some new faces as well.
“We feel real blessed that we’re in the new system,” Russell said, adding that what makes them stand apart is their medical marijuana background. “We’ve got a staff that’s passionate about cannabis, super knowledgeable about cannabis.”
Unlicensed Bellingham dispensary given deadline
The owner of the last unlicensed medical marijuana dispensary in Bellingham must close by 5 p.m. Monday, July 18, or be accused of a felony for manufacturing or delivering a controlled substance, a felony. Bellingham police hand-delivered a letter to Grass Roots Collective, 2200 Pacific St., on Thursday, July 14, with the final warning.
Grass Roots was among 13 businesses notified by the city of Bellingham that they must close by July 1 if they don’t get approval from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board to stay open and to continue selling medical marijuana. The city of Bellingham sent two rounds of letters within the past six months, reminding such dispensaries of new state rules and the July 1 deadline. This was the third letter to Grass Roots Collective.
“According to the lieutenant that served the letter, the business indicated that they would comply with the deadline and state law,” said Kurt Nabbefeld, the city’s development services manager.
Grass Roots owner Jaramie Thomas has said he kept the dispensary open beyond the July 1 deadline at the request of his patients and out of concern for them.