State lawmakers Saturday took a big step toward licensing and regulating medical-marijuana sellers for the first time.
The state Senate voted to carve out a spot for medical marijuana in the legalization and licensing scheme voters created for recreational marijuana in 2012.
To change Initiative 502, the Senate had to muster a two-thirds supermajority. It cleared that hurdle with a 34-to-15 vote including roughly equal proportions of votes from each side of the aisle.
Patients would buy their products at one of the state-licensed stores authorized under Initiative 502, whose numbers could be expanded to accommodate patients. Alternatively, a patient could grow a limited number of marijuana plants at home or form a cooperative with up to three other people for personal use.
If patients choose to participate in a proposed state registry of patients, they could get a partial tax break and buy in larger volumes.
The unregulated dispensaries that currently sell medical pot would have to close or obtain a state license by Sept. 1, 2015.
Senate Bill 5887 now goes to the House with just five days left in the legislative session. It has some important differences from a measure that passed in the House last month that would have made the registry mandatory for patients. But Sen. Ann Rivers, the Republican who put forward the plan along with Democratic Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, said it largely reflects the negotiations of a bipartisan group of House and Senate members.
The voluntary registry could ease some fears among medical marijuana advocates, patients and sellers -- although many of them question the whole concept of lumping them in with recreational buyers.
"I believe we are doing a lot for our patients in this," Rivers, R-La Center, said after the vote. "This is a frightening thing for them. This is a huge change. They have been wholly unregulated, absolutely no regulation, and now they're going into a regulated market."
The Senate plan would exempt patients from the sales tax, but not the larger 25 percent tax levied at each level of sale from growers to customers.
"Making it too expensive for them could be life or death for somebody," cautioned Ezra Eickmeyer, a lobbyist for marijuana producers and sellers.
Eickmeyer praised senators, however, for making so many changes he said would benefit patients. So did Kari Boiter, another medical-marijuana advocate, although she still worries about whether medicinal products will be available under the proposed system.
Rivers said there may be further changes to taxation but added that it's easier to add tax breaks later than to eliminate them: "It's easy to start spartan and go larger. It's hard to go large and then go austere."
Some senators, including Republican Brian Dansel of Republic and Democrat Mark Mullet of Issaquah, opposed the measure for not providing money to cities and counties that have been demanding a share of the revenue from the I-502 system.
A separate proposal sets up a task force that will consider taxation and where the money goes. But Rivers said all those issues may be addressed as the main measure moves ahead.