Washington Legislature Approves Ban on Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

The unregulated outlets compete with state-licensed stores.


Office of Ann Rivers

Yesterday the Washington State Legislature sent Gov. Jay Inslee a bill that abolishes medical marijuana dispensaries and calls upon state-licensed retailers to serve patients as well as recreational consumers. Under S.B. 5052, which was introduced by Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) in January, the "collective gardens" that currently supply medical marijuana have to shut down by July 2016. After that patients will have to buy their medicine from stores overseen by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which the bill renames the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). The board is charged with granting "medical marijuana endorsements" to retailers who decide to specialize in that market. Patients will still have the option of growing their own medicine, but the legal limits will be dramatically reduced.

Unlike Rivers' original bill, the current version, which Inslee is expected to sign, does not require patients to register with the state. But those who do will receive "recognition cards" that confer several important advantages. Card holders will be allowed to buy marijuana even if they are younger than 21 (the minimum age for recreational consumers), as long as they are at least 18. They will escape some of the taxes that the state imposes on marijuana, and they will be allowed to possess more marijuana in public: up to three ounces, three times the limit for recreational users. They also will be allowed to grow more plants: up to six rather than the four allotted to unregistered patients, down from the current presumptive limit of 15. Up to four registered patients can form a "cooperative," growing up to 60 plants for their own use.

Unlike the four other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana for general use (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and the District if Columbia), Washington does not allow recreational consumers to grow cannabis at home. But since Washington's medical marijuana initiative took effect in 1999, patients with doctor's recommendations have been allowed to do so. Rivers originally sought not only to scale back that right but to reserve it for registered patients, so the final bill represents a compromise on that point.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between registered and unregistered patients under this bill is that the former will be immune from arrest if they stay within the legal limits, while the latter will be entitled only to an affirmative defense should they be prosecuted. The bill says a doctor's recommendation "does not provide protection from arrest unless the qualifying patient or designated provider is also entered in the medical marijuana authorization database and holds a recognition card." Then again, a doctor's recommendation currently does not provide such protection and never has. I-502, the 2012 ballot initiative that legalized recreational use, does protect people against arrest, but only for possessing up to an ounce. S.B. 5052 gives patients additional protection, but only if they register.

A cynic would say the main goal of this bill is to eliminate gray-market competition with state-licensed marijuana suppliers and thereby maximize the tax revenue that Washington receives from those newly legal businesses. But legislators say they do not want to leave bona fide patients in the lurch, which explains why the bill was dubbed the Cannabis Patient Protection Act. "The reality is that we have a thriving illicit market," Rivers said. "It's essential that we shut that down. But it was also essential that our patients had a clean supply and an adequate supply." 

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), a longtime champion of medical marijuana patients who sponsored a competing bill and voted against this one, does not think Rivers struck the right balance. "We are getting closer to coming up with a solution that meets the needs of medical marijuana patients and people who use marijuana recreationally," she says in a statement issued last night. "I acknowledge that this bill gets us closer. Unfortunately, to me, it doesn't go far enough." Kohl-Welles worries that patients in rural areas will not have adequate access to medical marijuana, and she says the registry, though voluntary, "leads to a confusing system where some patients will be able to possess and/or grow more marijuana than others." That "will make it challenging for law enforcement to decipher who is operating legally and who is not," she says, and it "punishes patients who do not want to be on a list [because of] privacy concerns."

Kari Boiter, a Washington medical marijuana activist, argues that "patients will be losing a lot of freedom." She notes that "donating or otherwise supplying marijuana without express permission of the LCB is now a felony," which means patients could be prosecuted for sharing marijuana with each other outside the context of an officially recognized cooperative. Washington, unlike the other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana for general use, did not eliminate criminal penalties for noncommercial transfers. "How's that for making 'legalization' work?" Boiter asks.

Unlike Colorado, which built its recreational industry on top of the existing medical industry, Washington started from scratch, creating bitter divisions within the marijuana reform movement. Although I-502's backers promised it would not affect patients, since it said nothing about them one way or another, legislators were bound to crack down on dispensaries once state-licensed stores started opening and faced untaxed, unregulated competitors. And given the bumpy road that the newly legal industry has traveled so far, patients can be forgiven for worrying that it won't be up to serving their needs.