Pot regulation debate lights up in Olympia

Two measures would bring medical marijuana under the state's regulatory system for controlling recreational pot. The ACLU and some others object.
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The ACLU's Alison Holcomb

Two measures would bring medical marijuana under the state's regulatory system for controlling recreational pot. The ACLU and some others object.

Dozens of people showed up Thursday to talk to state legislators about a touchy subject: merging Washington's medical and recreational pot systems under one entity.

The pro arguments: Quality control, more predictability in a medical pot world that now flirts with anarchy and the creation of a level business playing field for businesses.

The con arguments: Medical marijuana patients want to be able to smoke pot bought from their chosen stores, a state registry is Big Brother and there is no need for lots of rules.

Perhaps 75 people attended the first of what will probably be several legislative hearings on merging the pot systems. The testimony before the Senate Health Care Committee hearing in Olympia tackled two bills -- one by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, to consolidate the two systems and one by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, to create a system for licensing marijuana research. Kohl-Welles also introduced her own bill Thursday to consolidate the two marijuana distribution systems.

Kohl-Welles' marijuana-research bill -- in which the Washington Liquor Control Board would be told to map out research facility regulations -- received universal praise at Thursday's hearing. Supporters talked about Washington becoming the nation's center for marijuana research accompanied by a boom in related biotech ventures. And they talked about researching and nailing down scientific standards to better control the quality of medical and recreational marijuana.

On the hot topic of harmonizing the regulation of the medical and recreational systems, Rivers and Kohl-Welles expect to cooperate and combine their two bills. They did the same last year to pass a merger bill in the Senate, only to see it die in the House amid arguments over the distribution of tax revenues. "We have the responsibility to harmonize the two with patients' safety coming first," Rivers said.

The Washington Liquor Control Board regulates recreational marijuana, while Washington's medical pot is almost totally unregulated. And while medical marijuana shops pay normal sales taxes, the recreational stores pay a special 25 percent excise tax.

In the medical pot field, the Liquor Control Board Executive Director Rich Garza said, "We've seen a massive proliferation of gray market dispensaries." He also said, "We see a troubling lack of safety precautions. ... We've seen exploitation of loopholes in the law."

More people and organizations supported merging the two systems Thursday than opposed the concept.

Several members of the Washington Cannabis Association -- a coalition of the state's recreational marijuana businesses -- supported Rivers' bill. They argued that consolidated regulations would ensure quality control for medical marijuana, keep kids from patronizing less tightly regulated dispensaries and keep an unregulated medical market from unfairly underselling the highly regulated recreational pot market. "My business' success or failure should not ride of my competitors not following the law," said Ian Eisenberg, a recreational pot retailer from Seattle.

Seattle city officials and representatives of the Association of Washington Cities supported merging the two systems as a way to simplify enforcement of marijuana laws and deal with numerous legal questions now posed by medical pot sales. "The cities are struggling with the unregulated proliferation of marijuana," said Candice Bock, representing the Association of Washington Cities.

Medical marijuana patients Michael Mazetti of Okanogan County and Ann Palmer of the Olympia area protested the proposed ban on smoking medical pot. They said smoking pot relieves their pain better than ingesting the substance. A section of Rivers' bill says dried marijuana leaves cannot be sold for medical use -- only edibles and extracts can be. Rivers contended that a sick person inhaling smoke into their lungs is not a medically sound practice. Kohl-Welles' bill would allow medical marijuana to be smoked.

Jason Duck of Hoquiam, who said he is dealing with pain caused by an explosive device in the Middle East, complained that clerks in recreational stores do not know enough about the medical uses of pot to provide good advice.

Alison Holcomb, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who spearheaded the legalization of recreational pot, said the ACLU opposes merging the two systems, arguing that a state medical certification for the medicinal dispensaries would be a better path to take. Kohl-Welles' plan calls for phasing out medical pot dispensaries and expanding the number of recreational shops along with giving them the chance to earn medical certifications. Rivers' plan would keep the medical dispensaries as separate entities, but would allow the recreational shops to be certified for medical pot. Holcomb contended that -- without the medical pot stores -- even an expanded number of recreational shops would not be able to keep up with the state's market demand for pot.

The ACLU also opposes the creation of registries to list the people -- who will be issued cards -- eligible for medical marijuana. Rivers said Washington is the only one of the 22 states with legalized medical marijuana with no registry.

The crowd was relatively small in comparison to some expectations and previous pot discussions in recent years. But complicated new grounds the legislation would cover, along with the ACLU's concerns and the turnout on Thursday, point to extended discussions by the Legislature.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8