Restoring medical marijuana’s legitimacy

It takes some chutzpah for drug dealers to complain that state lawmakers aren’t endorsing their business model. That’s more or less what’s happening in Olympia as “medical” pot sellers face the arrival of genuinely legal and regulated marijuana under Initiative 502.

Any sober observer knows that Washington’s jungle of illegal marijuana dispensaries can’t co-exist with the licensed and controlled system I-502 was designed to create.

For starters, the U.S. Justice Department won’t allow the dispensaries – that’s a condition of its very conditional decision not to shut down the legal outlets that are going to materialize in coming months. Plus, the unlicensed dispensaries would undercut the licensed stores, farms and packagers.

The dispensaries – as a group, not every single one – have operated in open defiance of state and federal laws, including the state medical marijuana law.

Long gone is the pretense that they serve only people with cancer, wasting diseases, intractable pain and other severe illnesses. By and large, they sell dope to garden-variety recreational users. The quacks who enable these users have frequently sold prescriptions for dope with a money-back guarantee: no papers, no charge.

The potential corruption in the “medical” black market has been demonstrated by recent federal investigations.

When they’ve kicked over the decaying logs – the most flagrant offenders – they’ve found immense piles of cash, firearms and grow operations with hundreds of plants. (State law forbids any selling whatsoever outside the licensed system; it allows nonprofit collective gardens a maximum of 45 plants and 15 patients.)

Last week, for example, two Tacoma men connected with dispensaries were charged in federal court with drug-trafficking and money-laundering. According to the indictment, their operations involved 1,000 kilograms of processed marijuana products (more than a ton) and at least 1,000 plants.

That’s not typical, but the federal busts have shown how deep the rot can reach when local jurisdictions – such as Seattle and Tacoma – adopt a de facto tolerance policy toward any illegal enterprise.

To make I-502 work, lawmakers this session are finally moving to eradicate the dispensaries.

They are removing the term “collective garden” from existing law, which will expunge the pretext dealers have been using to sell dope to every supposed patient who walks through the door.

They’re also moving to accommodate the genuinely ill: Bona fide patients will be offered tax-free cannabis from licensed retailers specializing in therapeutic strains – some of which control symptoms without leaving patients stoned.

Closing the dispensaries won’t hurt true medical marijuana in this state. On the contrary, it will restore its legitimacy.