Tacoma City Council members got what they wanted Tuesday.
Now the question is: What next?
When the state Senate and House signed off on legislation that — pending Gov. Jay Inslee’s expected signature — will rein in Washington’s wild west medical marijuana market this week, it was not just a long time coming. It also was a redeeming moment for lawmakers.
The move, which cities like Tacoma have long advocated, is designed to shutter rogue unlicensed dispensaries and bring all legal pot sales under the purview of the Initiative 502-created recreational market by July 2016.
If this year’s session had come and gone without the Legislature reconciling the diametrically opposed medical and recreation pot markets, like last year’s did, it would have been one of the bigger political failings in recent memory.
The legislation, however, is just a starting point. With at least 58 medical marijuana dispensaries currently doing business in Tacoma, according to the city — a figure that seems to grow daily — the transition to the new marijuana landscape won’t be simple.
In fact, it’s likely to get downright messy.
Like most legislation that emerges from Olympia, the medical marijuana overhaul has its flaws.
There’s fear over the creation of a medical marijuana patient registry, though lawmakers wisely made participation optional. Patients are concerned they will be forced to pay high taxes, won’t have the same access to products, and won’t be allowed to possess enough pot to adequately treat their ailments.
Some of these worries are legitimate and some are simply blown smoke from those invested, often financially, in maintaining the status quo.
“There’s never a perfect bill. You have to make compromises,” Tacoma’s government relations officer Randy Lewis said. “But it works.”
From the perspective of a city like Tacoma, besieged by entrepreneurial unlicensed medical pot shops, the mere fact that most of the law’s changes won’t take effect until July 2016 is, at the very least, frustrating. Some direction on how to get gracefully from Point A to Point B would have been nice.
In absence of that guidance, and with palpable annoyance growing among some members of the City Council, it wouldn’t be shocking to hear a call for Tacoma to pull the trigger on issuing long-threatened cease and desist letters to medical dispensaries operating without a state license.
Such a move would be brash and unfortunate. While some people dupe the system to get medical marijuana cards, and some medical marijuana providers seem to have an equal disregard for the rules, there are also patients with legitimate medical needs here that deserve respect, and the benefit of the doubt.
“There’s going to be more chaos, or more confusion, and I hope the public will understand that, yeah, the Legislature acted, but there’s still a lifetime until the middle of 2016,” Lewis admits.
For Tacoma, the potential hurdles don’t end there.
The medical pot stores popping up on every street corner and strip mall have largely taken advantage of the current law’s vague and malleable language surrounding collective gardens. While the new law will do away with the collective garden loophole, and — in theory — end the bonanza, it will allow for four-patient cooperatives with a limit of 60 plants.
The newly renamed state Liquor and Cannabis Board also will issue retail licenses to some existing collective gardens, under what’s being described as a “merit-based system.” That system will take into account factors like how long the gardens have been in business, and whether they pay taxes and have business licenses.
The challenge for Tacoma? None of our dispensaries pay taxes to the city or has a business license.
Just how many of Tacoma’s unlicensed medical marijuana storefronts will be allowed to transition and survive is, according to Lewis, “one of those unknowns” at this point. Safe to say it won’t be 58.
Rest assured, however, Tacoma will need far more than the eight licenses we’ve been allocated under I-502 to meet the need of patients and recreational users.
Putting things mildly, Lewis says, “We’re going to be entering a whole new world in 2016.”
The Legislature finally can check doing something off its list. But the reality is the work of reconciling medical and recreational marijuana in Tacoma is just getting started.