Washington state pot backers loudly make their points

Lawmakers get earful from medical users to avoid recreational use restrictions

Staff writerJanuary 19, 2014 

The passion of the medical-marijuana advocates who swarmed Olympia last week was no surprise to state lawmakers.

Their pleas had already been stacking up in Rep. Laurie Jinkins’ inbox more than emails on any other topic, and they did not mince words.

The messages recalled for the Tacoma Democrat the insult Dan Aykroyd used to hurl at Jane Curtin on “Saturday Night Live” to belittle Curtin as ignorant and promiscuous.

“That’s how the emails to legislators start,” Jinkins told an audience recently. “I’m like, ‘We haven’t done anything yet.’”

Not yet, but advocates know lawmakers might be getting ready to regulate medical marijuana sales for the first time since voters opened the door for medical use in 1998. And some are blistering in their criticism of proposals for a merger with the scheme voters created in 2012 for recreational marijuana — even as organizers of the opposition mostly try to strike a more conciliatory tone, with some saying the aggression could hurt their cause.

Some version of a merger appears to have a shot to pass into law, even though some of its particulars would likely require two-thirds supermajorities in the Legislature. Members of all four of the partisan caucuses of the Legislature are talking, in meetings of what Sen. Ann Rivers calls the “pot caucus.” If they can agree, it might be the biggest policy to emerge from a low-expectations 60-day legislative session.

“I believe there’s tremendous will in the Legislature to get this squared away this year,” said Rivers, R-La Center.

Federal authorities have said the current unregulated system cannot continue, even as they have agreed to stand by while Washington experiments with a recreational system. State policymakers worry about federal intervention and about medical competition undercutting the highly taxed, tightly regulated growers and stores that will receive state licenses.

Under legislative proposals, these new recreational stores would take over medical sales.

Whether it’s truly a matter of life and death, as some advocates insist, it’s surely a matter of the survival of the medical-marijuana industry as it exists now.

LAST GASP?

To see the kind of operation that might be shut down based on decisions at the Capitol, go inside a storefront half a mile away and just off Capitol Way in downtown Olympia.

Patrick Seifert opened Rainier Xpress two years ago, after years of teaching self defense and working security for the Emerald Queen Casino, Seattle Seahawks games, and other venues and events.

On the wall are pictures that mainly show men in uniform, highlighting the military background of many employees and patients. Seifert himself, 44, is a former Marine, although he says the post-traumatic stress disorder he medicates with marijuana is the result of childhood trauma and not his military service.

On the counters and shelves are jars full of marijuana buds, bottles of tinctures and balms and packages of hash oil and candies. While pot enthusiasts wanting a high might look for a drug’s THC content, Seifert immediately points out the products that are low in THC but have high levels of a different compound, cannabidiol, or CBD.

Products rich in CBD tend to work better as medication, Seifert said, while not necessarily getting you stoned. He doubts if such products would be found in the up to 334 stores opening statewide to cater to recreational users under Initiative 502.

As the rules stand now, products sold in the state-licensed stores aren’t allowed to extoll the drug’s medical benefits.

When someone walks into Rainier Xpress with an authorization from a physician — or a physician’s assistant, naturopath or advanced nurse practitioner — Seifert said the patient gets attention from employees who can figure out what will best address a specific condition. Different products help reduce pain, improve appetite or aid sleep, he said. Children, too, have unique needs.

“I want them to get their medicine,” Seifert said of the more than 3,000 patients he said frequent his shop. “They are not going to get their medicine in a 502 shop.”

The prices at recreational stores will also reflect 25 percent taxes levied at each of the three levels: growing, processing and retailing. On top of that is sales tax.

“There’s just no way my patients can afford medicine like that,” said Seifert, who said he pays regular business-and-occupation taxes and does not charge sales tax. State tax collectors and some medical sellers dispute whether sales tax is owed.

His prices mostly hover around $10 a gram, a typical price for the medical market, with some strains as low as $6 or as high as $12. Predictions vary for the prices in the new system, but state consultants postulated a range that is only slightly higher: about $9 to $15 a gram for standard marijuana.

Proposals in the Legislature offer varying levels of tax relief for medical marijuana. One would exempt it from sales tax; another would instead eliminate the biggest tax, the final 25 percent on retail sales.

Especially with a tax exemption, medical products including those rich in CBD aren’t likely to go away, said Alison Holcomb, lead author of I-502.

“If there’s a demand, there will be a supply,” Holcomb said. Of the worries about medical products, she said: “It’s still not clear to me why they aren’t issues that will be worked out through the legal market system.”

PLANS FOR CHANGE

The concept under consideration by lawmakers has its origins with the state Liquor Control Board, which will license and regulate the new recreational stores.

The idea is for a state-issued medical endorsement that would allow one of the stores to sell to people holding proposed state-issued cards verifying someone’s status as a patient.

The proposals would do away with authority for other retail medical operations. Under current law, the owners of storefronts have seized on an allowance for “collective gardens” of up to 10 patients at a time, arguing that allows them to serve unlimited customers as long as the customers join and then quit their collective as part of each purchase.

The identification cards would essentially create a registry of patients, something that law enforcement has demanded and that worries patients. Police and prosecutors want a way to easily make sure someone is a legitimate patient. Patients worry they will incriminate themselves by signing up for a list of people who after all are committing a federal crime.

Proposals would tighten the rules for medical professionals. It’s widely seen as fairly easy to obtain authorizations for marijuana. Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, argues the vast majority of users, probably 95 percent to 99 percent, are actually recreational users. Medical advocates hotly dispute that.

Proposals also would reduce the amount of the drug a patient could possess and the number of plants that could be grown at home.

There are differences among the three lawmakers offering the plans: southwest Washington Republican Rivers and two Democrats, West Seattle Rep. Eileen Cody and Seattle Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles. For example, Kohl-Welles would allow for a new variation on growing collectives. Cody’s bill would eventually eliminate home grows.

But each of the three expressed confidence that they would come to an agreement.

Cody said they are trying to work out a deal now rather than bounce proposals back and forth between the House and Senate. In the meantime, Cody’s measure was the subject of a packed hearing last week while a Senate committee will take public testimony at 10 a.m. Tuesday on Rivers and Kohl-Welles’ proposals.

BACKLASH

Rivers said the response has been “brutal.” “Some people have said to ‘be careful; they’re going to jail over this,’” she said.

They fail to understand her background, she said. Before her father died of lung cancer, she said, marijuana made his last days more comfortable. It fought back the nausea brought on by chemotherapy and helped him keep food down.

“People say, oh, I’m just trying to kill medical marijuana,” Rivers said. She shook her head. “You’re not going to get that from me.”

Kohl-Welles said she has worked on the issue since the 1990s, and she’s used to sometimes being “maligned and hated” by some elements of an often fragmented movement.

“Some of that turns legislators off. When you get a Ryan Day speaking, legislators listen,” Kohl-Welles said.

Day has given his 5-year-old son marijuana to treat his epileptic seizures. Lawmakers took notice last week when the Thurston County father testified that his son needs larger quantities of marijuana than some of the limits under consideration, to make the liquid extracts that are rich in CBD. Kohl-Welles obtained Day’s backing for her measure.

Lawmakers also heard last week from Jeremy Robbins. A paraplegic, Robbins said he grows cannabis in 10-gallon pots in his Vancouver backyard and can’t afford to buy it. Robbins said he voted for I-502 only to now find the medical system in jeopardy — before Washington even knows how its recreational experiment is going to work.

“What we need is to leave these vulnerable people out of it,” Robbins said, “until we figure out how everything else is going to work.”

Many others last week were accusing lawmakers of ignorance and of colluding with outside interests. Some warned they would be turned out of office. Some crowded the front of the room after a longer-than-usual two-hour hearing complaining about not getting enough opportunity to speak, Jinkins said.

Organizers of a couple of groups, one called Health Before Happy Hour and another the Cannabis Action Coalition, both distanced themselves from the most aggressive voices, urging their allies to be respectful.

“There are a lot of other people who feel like they want to have a voice and can’t associate with that,” said Kari Boiter, an organizer of Health Before Happy Hour, so named to underline that medical needs should come before recreational pursuits.

People in the medical-marijuana movement are united against a merger. But they differ on tactics.

Organizer Arthur West said the action coalition wants to prevent any changes this year, warning not to trust lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto pen. In 2011, vetoes by former Gov. Chris Gregoire hollowed out the last proposal to regulate medical marijuana.

Boiter’s group says regulation is needed. Many in the group are pushing a measure introduced by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo. It would write into law much of what Gregoire vetoed.

It would explicitly authorize growers and dispensaries that would have to obey regulations.

“We’re the ones who understand what kind of regulations we can meet and which ones we can’t,” said Boiter, a former legislative aide. “We need people at the table who actually understand how this plant is grown.”

The debate will play out against the backdrop of a federal mandate to act. In the U.S. Justice Department’s announcement in August that it would take a hands-off approach in states that have legalized marijuana, the department warned that it would be watching.

The feds want to ensure pot is kept away from minors, criminal gangs, federal property and public lands and out of states where it remains illegal, and that the new market doesn’t add to violence, impaired driving or other illegal activity.

“But if any of the stated harms do materialize — either despite a strict regulatory scheme or because of the lack of one — federal prosecutors will act aggressively to bring individual prosecutions focused on federal enforcement priorities and the Department may challenge the regulatory scheme themselves in these states,” the department said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826
jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.com

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