Last night the Washington House of Representatives approved a bill that would abolish medical marijuana dispensaries, a.k.a. "collective gardens," and impose new restrictions on patients who use cannabis for symptom relief. H.B. 2149, which passed by a vote of 67 to 29, would thereby eliminate some of the unregulated competition for the state-licensed pot stores that are expected to start opening this summer under I-502, the legalization initiative that Washington voters approved in November 2012. Supporters of the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle), hope that banning dispensaries will help maximize tax revenue and mollify the feds.
The bill requires patients to buy their cannabis from the same stores that serve recreational customers, which would be the only legal sellers of medical marijuana as of May 1, 2015, when the provision allowing collective gardens would be repealed. Patients could continue to grow marijuana for their own use, but the maximum number of plants would be reduced from 15 to six (three of them flowering). The ceiling on possession by patients would be cut from 24 ounces to three. The bill instructs the state Department of Health, together with the Washington State Liquor Control Board (which is charged with regulating marijuana growers, processors, and retailers), to produce a report by November 15, 2019, on the question of whether it is appropriate to continue allowing home cultivation.
Cody's legislation would create a "patient recognition" system that would allow cardholders to buy up to three ounces at a time (as opposed to one ounce for recreational customers), avoid paying sales taxes (a privilege addressed in a separate bill), and claim immunity from arrest for possession or cultivation within the limits set by law. Currently there is no central record of qualified patients. Patients with doctor's recommendations have an affirmative defense against marijuana charges, meaning they can still be arrested, although not convicted. H.B. 2149 would eliminate that affirmative defense, effectively requiring qualified patients to register with the state if they want to be recognized as such.
"I think that we can satisfy some of the patients," Cody said after the vote. "I don't think that all of the medical marijuana community will be happy."
That might be an understatement. "Our cowardly legislators voted to effectively end medical cannabis here," says Steve Sarich, executive director of the Cannabis Action Coalition, who opposed I-502 partly because of the impact he expected it to have on medical consumers. "Patients are in shock…. If the Senate votes to pass this bill, Washington will be the first state to end medical cannabis." All but three of the 29 votes against Cody's bill came from Republicans. "The Democrats, who supported I-502, were behind this, along with the governor," Sarich says. "Who would have thought it would be the Republicans trying to protect the rights of patients?"
The bill now goes to the state Senate, which is considering several measures that address medical marijuana. The 2014 legislative session ends on March 13.