Medical marijuana grower Brendan Howley working with marijuana plants grown under state medical marijuana prescriptions in Skagit County. Credit: 1/2013 Tom James/Crosscut
Does a bill to regulate medical marijuana go too far with a Big Brother approach to the topic, or does it strike just the right balance between good regulations and respect for privacy rights?
That question got debated Wednesday at a state House Heath Care Committee hearing on a bill introduced by Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, who wants to upgrade rules in the largely unregulated world of medical marijuana.
Medical marijuana patient Kirk Ludden told committee, "I do not believe you can establish a secure system that can guarantee our privacy."
John Weiss, representing the Washington State Association of Counties, said the bill, which his group supports, represents an attempt "to thread a very narrow needle" between the federal law against smoking marijuana and Washington's Initiative 502 that legalized marijuana in this state.
Cody's bill would reduce the amount of medical marijuana that a patient or designated provider can possess from 24 ounces to 3 ounces, or to 8 ounces if authorized by a qualified health provider. It also reduces the currently allowed possession of 15 marijuana plants to three flowering and three non-flowering plants. Collective gardens would be outlawed as of May 1, 2015. Both patients and providers would need cards from the state health department. It would set up a system in which licensed recreational marijuana retailers can also sell medical marijuana.
Wednesday's testimony split with law enforcement and government groups and the Washington Medical Association supporting the bill, and many marijuana-using patients and some independent dealers opposing it.
The support focused on having a system in place to enforce the new marijuana laws with clarity. "We asked for a clear set of rules,"," said Don Pierce, representing the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Opponents of the bill concentrated on the possibility that the federal government — which outlaws marijuana nationally — might obtain the health department records of patients and providers to arrest them. They also argued that the registering of names would violate federal confidentiality laws for medical patients. And they objected to the 24-ounce limit being shrunk. Cody said that the bill takes care of the medical confidentiality concerns.
"Eight ounces here. Three ounces there. It's extremely confusing," said Stephanie Viskovich of the Cannabis Action Coalition, who contended that doctors and not the government should say how much a patient can possess. Marijuana patient Sandra Garcia said she needs differing amounts of marijuana to deal with different levels of pain. "I can't say to my pain: 'Will you reduce this,'" she said.
Some people preferred another medical marijuana bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo. It tweaks parts of the existing medical marijuana law to comply with Initiative 502. However, it includes a section that would allow state-chartered banks to lend and hold money relating to marijuana enterprises — something that banks are loath to do because federal law forbids such transactions. The state is pondering how the industry can do its banking; Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, has already introduced a bill to create a state bank for that purpose.
Appleton's bill also calls for a group — including at least 12 medical marijuana stakeholders — to study the issue of the state collecting names of providers and legal users of medical pot.
In a related matter, the House Finance Committee held a Wednesday hearing on a bill that would provide a sales tax exemption of 10 years for qualified patients who buy marijuana for medical use through the new retail outlets that are being set up under the pot legalization initiative. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D- Seattle, introduced the bill.
Several people testified against it. A few said that medical marijuana is already tax exempt; they also contended that is premature to set up an exemption for a production and distribution system that has not been established.
Carlyle said his bill creates a unique category for medical marijuana to be considered a product between an over-the-counter drug and a prescription drug to calm federal concerns about whether the marijuana industry will be adequately regulated and tracked.