Washington Senate Approves Less Restrictive Medical Marijuana Bill


Jacob Sullum

On Saturday the Washington Senate passed a bill that addresses some of the concerns that patients have about new restrictions on medical marijuana. S.B. 5887, introduced by Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center), is substantially more permissive than H.B. 2149, the medical marijuana bill approved last month by the state House of Representatives, although both bills would abolish dispensaries, require patients to register with the state, and reduce limits on possession and cultivation. The patient-friendlier provisions of S.B. 5887, which passed by a vote of 34 to 15, include:

Collective gardens. The House bill would ban dispensaries (a.k.a. "collective gardens") as of May 2015, while the Senate bill would let them continue to operate until that September. Even after then, the Senate bill would let patients (or their designated providers) pool their resources and grow marijuana together for their own medical use. S.B. 5887 includes rules aimed at preventing collective gardens from evolving into dispensaries: Just one garden is allowed per location, no more than four patients may grow together at a time, and at least 15 days must elapse after one member leaves before a new member may join. 

Cultivation limit. Each patient (or a designated provider) would be allowed to grow up to six plants (down from 15 currently), but there would be no limit on how many of those six plants could be flowering at one time.

Purchase limits. Patients could buy up to three ounces of marijuana (more if a health professional says it is necessary), 48 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solid form, 216 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids, and 21 grams of concentrates from the state-licensed pot stores that are supposed to start opening this summer. Those are three times the limits for recreational customers. The current possession limit for patients is 24 ounces of marijuana.

Tax exemptions. When they buy cannabis from stores with "medical marijuana endorsements," registered patients would not have to pay the standard sales tax or the retail-level excise tax, but the latter exemption would expire in September 2015. "I am not happy about that, and we'll be fighting for its reinstatement this week," says Philip Dawdy, media and policy director at the Washington Cannabis Association

Supply and access. The state Liquor Control Board, which would be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Board, would be required to "increase the amount of square feet available for production by marijuana producers if the producer agrees to use the extra space to grow products for medical use and for sale to medical marijuana endorsed stores." On the retail end, the board must "reconsider the maximum number of retail outlets permitted and allow for a new license period and a greater number of retail outlets in order to accommodate the medical needs of qualifying patients." When it does so, "a preference may be given to those license applicants who intend to operate a medical-only store."

Medical strains. The Liquor and Cannabis Board must "adopt rules on products sold to qualifying patients under an endorsement, including THC concentration, CBD [cannabidiol] concentration, and THC to CBD ratios appropriate for patient use." State-licensed pot stores would be allowed to "identify the strains, varieties, THC levels and CBD levels" of their products, although state regulations prohibit the sort of symptom-specific advice currently available from dispensaries. "We'll have to work with LCB in rule making to straighten out what people can say," Dawdy says. 

Recommendations. An amendment to S.B. 5887 defines "principal care provider"—the person authorized to recommend marijuana for a patient—as a "health care professional who is designated by a qualifying patient." That provision should help veterans who receive primary care through V.A. hospitals where doctors are not allowed to recommend marijuana.

Affirmative defense. Patients with doctor's recommendations would continue to have an affirmative defense against marijuana charges until April 1, 2016, after which they would have to register with the state, which would give them immunity from arrest.

Registry privacy. In addition to confirming a patient's eligibility for higher purchase limits and tax exemptions, information from the registry could be shared with a law enforcement agency "engaged in a bona fide specific investigation of suspected marijuana-related activity that is illegal under Washington state law." Illegally sharing information from the registry would be a Class C felony.

"I'm not calling it good," Dawdy says, "but it is a workable framework for medical going forward." The Senate and the House have until Thursday to agree on a compromise bill.