Two weeks after Washington forced the closure of what once were hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries, roughly 20 percent of the 341 stores meant to replace them are certified to serve patients.
While that snag is slowly working itself out, another problem appears more intractable: There are no medically compliant products to sell. Producers don’t appear to be motivated to solve the shortage any time soon.
The transition — the product of the Legislature’s decision last year to merge the unregulated medical market with the system for recreational marijuana established under Initiative 502 — has confirmed the fears of many patients.
Shelia Scott of Rochester in Thurston County was a marijuana producer before the July 1 switchover. She’s still a medical user, but says she can’t find the high-dosage products she needs for pain.
“I’ve been without medical for two weeks,” Scott said. “Now, I’m in an extreme amount of pain and am suffering because I can’t get anything anywhere.”
State regulators say the transition has not been flawless.
“There’s been a few bumps in the roads,” Kristi Weeks with the Washington Department of Health said Tuesday.
As of Friday, only 67 of the 341 licensed stores with medical endorsements had activated them. Not all of the licensed stores are in operation.
The endorsement gives the stores the ability to access the state’s new patient database. The registry allows patients to buy high-dosage products and three times the amount of products recreational users can buy. It also allows them to avoid paying sales tax and gives them arrest protection.
But retailers must have trained medical consultants on staff to use the database. That’s not happening quickly enough, business owners say.
Another factor limiting patient access seems to be confusion among marijuana stores about the rules. A Seattle store owner contacted for this story has access to the state database, but is not giving the sales tax exemption to patients because he thought it was only for products deemed medically compliant by state-licensed labs. In fact, under state regulations, registered patients pay no sales tax on any products in stores with active medical endorsements.
Add the lack of products certified as medically compliant, and what is left is a desert of stores and products for medical users.
Thomas Kaapana, general manager of a Tacoma marijuana store, called the switchover, “a failure, big time. There’s a lot of people coming in here and wanting to blame it on me.”
He points instead to state officials.
“They’re just encouraging the black market to boom again,” Kaapana said.
STORES STILL JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS FOR DATABASE
The centerpiece of the state’s new medical marijuana system is a $2.4 million patient database. Developers made a mad dash to get it operational by July 1. As of Friday, stores had issued cards to 1,547 adult patients, a fraction of the 130,000 patients that the Marijuana Policy Project estimates the state has.
Marijuana stores have reported numerous problems with the database.
“The retailers were not all 100 percent comfortable with using it,” Weeks said. They required a lot of tech support, she said.
Some retailers can’t use the database because they haven’t met all the requirements needed to activate their medical endorsements.
One hangup for stores has been staff certification. At Two Five Trees on South 38th Street, five employees have completed training but not yet received their certifications. So owner Chad Dagais has been unable to activate his medical endorsement. At downtown Tacoma store Urban Bud, store manager Chandra Hall is in the same position, having not received state certificates for her six staff consultants as of Wednesday.
Full classes meant delays for many would-be consultants. In addition to the courses, consultants must arrange to take CPR classes. After that, all the paperwork needs to be mailed in to the state for review.
State officials say they are working to expedite the certification of medical consultants, which Weeks said could happen as quickly as three to five days. Consultants can use three approved training programs, including two online versions, Weeks said.
“The majority of applicants are taking the online courses. The class is 20 hours and can be finished in just a few days,” she said. The CPR training also can be done online.
The state Liquor and Cannabis Board said this week that it will give stores until the end of summer to activate their endorsements before revoking them. The city of Tacoma requires that all its stores have medical endorsements.
Some stores report the process has been a smooth one. At Mary Mart on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, manager Billy White said his store was ready long before July 1, although technical issues delayed its use of the database until July 3.
“It’s been a pretty seamless switchover,” White said. Five of his employees have been certified. As of Tuesday, 16 patients have been registered at the store.
Tacoma’s busiest marijuana store, Clear Choice Cannabis on South Hosmer Street, also had its database operating last week. Clear Choice registered at least 20 patients in the new database, manager Sarah Andrews said Tuesday.
Some stores that haven’t activated their endorsements are taking “a wait and see attitude,” Weeks said.
Kaapana is one of those. He isn’t using the medical endorsement for Emerald Leaves on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue because he doesn’t have any products to sell patients.
Kaapana had items that were designed for medical use but not officially compliant with state regulations. Typically, they are high in the cannabinoid CBD which does not produce the “high” associated with THC. CBD is thought to have medical qualities.
But the sales tax break that card holders receive can be given only at stores with active medical endorsements.
LACK OF PRODUCTS BIGGER CONCERN
Medically compliant products — if they existed — would be tested for pesticides and heavy metals in addition to the usual battery of tests for recreational marijuana. They can have higher dosage limits (up to 50 milligrams THC) as compared to the 10 milligram limit for recreational pot.
“I have a lot of medical patients that really need the higher dosages and stricter testing,” Urban Bud’s Hall said. “We need more options and more products.”
At Two Five Trees, Dagais had been planning to move into an adjacent building and devote his old space to medical. He’s abandoned his plan to keep the old space since hearing from vendors about the lack of products.
World of Weed owner Alden Linn on Portland Avenue is also about to begin a major remodel project around medical products. But, like Dagais, he’s unsure how much to expand because of the lack of products.
“There’s none out there,” Linn said of medical products. At least one of his vendors is working on it.
Danielle Rosellison, the co-owner of Bellingham’s Trail Blazin’ Productions, is one of many Washington marijuana producers who supply the recreational market but do not make medically compliant products.
The testing required for medical products is more expensive, she said. But more concerning for Rosellison is the financial risk.
“DOH rules state we have to destroy the entire harvest if anything comes back hot (contaminated),” she said.
Rosellison doesn’t use pesticides on her products, but the chance of accidentally getting a foreign substance that could be detected is too great, she said.
To cover a potential loss, she would have to charge more, negating any savings a consumer would get by avoiding sales tax.
“What if the bud that I randomly pick was touching the wall of the room, which just got cleaned with cleaner, and thus fails?” she said. “What if the lab gets a false positive? What if an outdoor (marijuana) farmer is downwind of an apple orchard which is allowed to use over 800 pesticides that we’re not?”
DOH’s Weeks disputes those concerns. She said that the state’s testing standards are not strict enough to detect and disqualify products because of household cleaners and accidental drift from agricultural uses.
“It scares me that they are afraid of testing hot,” Weeks said.
Weeks said that some growers don’t want to enter the medically compliant market because they are using pesticides.
“They are potentially selling dirty weed in the recreational market, and they just don’t want to get caught,” Weeks said.
Seattle-based grower Alex Cooley shut down his medical operation July 1 and laid off over 50 workers. The founder of Solstice now supplies only the recreational market.
Cooley said medical producers didn’t have enough lead time to grow compliant crops. The state finished writing medical marijuana regulations this year. Growing, processing, testing and labeling — which must all be approved by the state — takes 18 months, he said.
The packaging requirements alone are onerous, he said.
“A bottle of OxyContin has a lower threshold of packaging than a bottle of (marijuana) capsules does in the state of Washington,” Cooley said.
Brian Smith, spokesman for the Liquor and Cannabis Board, did not dispute Cooley’s comparison.
OxyContin is a legal drug, while marijuana is not under federal law, Smith said.
“The difference is that this is a schedule one controlled substance,” Smith said of marijuana. The federal government defines schedule one drugs as having no medical use and having a high potential for abuse.
Cooley doesn’t know when he’ll start producing medical marijuana again.
“We will do it someday,” he said. “But only when we can offer something better than they can get in the recreational system.”
PATIENTS RUNNING OUT OF POT
Scott, the former medical marijuana producer, said it’s only a matter of time before patients return to buying pot illegally.
The black market is exactly where Jonathon Dunn of Lake Tapps is headed to get his medical marijuana to control pain from an autoimmune disease.
“All the dispensaries handed me their cards and said we have all this leftover stuff we need to get rid of,” Dunn, 26, said. “They have everything that existed before.”
Dunn said he’ll also visit recreational stores, but he’s not going to get registered in the database. He feels that the cost of seeing a doctor plus the registration fee negates any sales tax savings.
Kari Boiter, a medical marijuana user and a member of advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said the transition has been everything patients feared. Boiter stocked up on marijuana products prior to July 1.
“When I run out, I cannot honestly tell you where I’ll get the products I’m using now,” she said.
John Branch, who owns the marijuana shop Ponder in Seattle, said that the merger of the recreational and medical systems is “a process” but will ultimately benefit patients.
Previously, patients couldn’t be sure of the purity of products in dispensaries, he said.
“You’re dealing with stuff that wasn’t unregulated at all,” Branch said of dispensaries. “(Patients) should have clean, safe products.”
Before the state came out with its pesticide regulations earlier this year, Branch had his products tested. He found several with pesticides and removed them from his store.
“They all swore up and down that they were organic,” Branch said.
Branch is optimistic that the industry will get through its growing pains.
“If you look at the alcohol industry — we’re how many years after Prohibition? … we’re still playing around with alcohol policy.”