Conservative senator with marijuana background leads on law changes

By John Stang
Crosscut archive image.

Sen. Ann Rivers.

By John Stang

State Senator Ann Rivers’ dad, Gene, was dying of cancer in 1995, and in intense pain. With nothing to lose, he decided to see if pot could make him more comfortable. Rivers’ sister obtained some from Rivers-knows-not-where. At first, she says the sight of her dad lighting up a joint was shocking. As he began to feel better and control his vomiting, it became less so.

Later, Rivers’ brother got into a bad snowmobile accident, crushing his pelvis and breaking his ribs. Again, she says marijuana helped immensely in dealing with his pain.

Rivers jokes that she drew the short straw. Even for a legislator used to working across the aisle on various issues, taking a leading role on the subject of marijuana might seem like a stretch, despite her background.

She’s a conservative Republican state senator from a southwestern Washington district, who voted against legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012. She voted against Initiative 502, the legalization measure. Her own Senate Majority Coalition Caucus members were mostly uncomfortable with the idea of recreational marijuana — or even pot in general.

In the wake of the 2012 vote, however, Washington faced a situation that it shared only with Colorado — recreational and medical marijuana legally co-existing. In Washington, I-502 established a set of regulations, with expectations the rules would need to be tweaked. At the same time, medical marijuana in Washington operated under a system that has been universally considered as full of loopholes.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, had been long entrenched as the Legislature’s experts in the subject. Then in 2014, Rivers was approached by Senate Majority Coalition Caucus leader then-Sen. Rodney Tom to take lead on merging the loosey-goosey medical marijuana system and the highly regulated recreational pot world.

Since then, Rivers has rocked the boat. A bill she introduced, opponents argue, would do away with the medical marijuana industry altogether, combining it into the recreational industry. As she puts it, the people of Washington wanted marijuana legalized across the board. Whether or not she agrees with their decision, a good regulatory system is needed to make that work.

Her proposals have been controversial, to say the least. She received at least one death threat, she says, when someone said he would shoot her on the Senate floor from the balcony.

In the beginning, Rivers had to learn the subject of marijuana from scratch, spending almost every day between legislative sessions reading, quizzing experts and listening to a wide variety of people on the subject —a regulatory topic that no place except Colorado has ever seriously explored.

As she delved into the subject, she occasionally made other legislators’ eye glaze over when she got down into the heavy detailed weeds of the topic. But she and others got a wonkish thrill in being regulatory pioneers.

“The good news is we’re in the avant garde. The bad news is we’re in the avant garde. You’re building something. You’re guiding it instead of it ruling you,” Rivers said.

Last year, she won Senate passage of the bill to mesh medical marijuana ventures with recreational pot stores. It almost made it through the House, but the bill stalled at the last minute amid convoluted backroom negotiations.

River was not the only one spearheading the efforts to merge the two pot systems. Despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, the staunchly liberal Kohl-Welles — who also says her only experimentation with pot was in college — and the strongly conservative Rivers introduced similar bills this year. And they swapped ideas back and forth until the GOP-controlled Senate sent Rivers’ bill to a floor vote, where it passed 36-11 to go to the House. Kohl-Welles, nine other Democrats and one Republican voted against it.

Kohl-Welles did not like creating a voluntary state registry on medical marijuana patients as part of the bill, or the fact that the measure prohibits homegrown marijuana in most situations. She cited concerns about law officers being able to use these features against individuals. She said the feds have looked into using state medical marijuana registries for law enforcement purposes.

Rivers counters that 24 states have legalized medical marijuana, and Washington had been the only one without a patient registry. Rivers said the feds have not breached that privacy zone elsewhere, and efforts have been made to help preserve privacy in Washington’s new law.

In the House, moderate Democrat Hurst decided to roll every marijuana regulatory idea — even the contradictory ones — into one huge bill to be studied and trimmed and modified. That feedback ended with Rivers’ bill reaching the House floor. The House passed the bill 60-36, and the modified bill went back to the Senate, which approved it 41-8 with four Republicans and four Democrats, including Kohl-Welles opposing it. Kohl-Welles’ oppositional reasons stayed the same. However, she praised Rivers’ bill for successfully tackling many issues that worried medical marijuana concerns. “She did a good job of getting a lot in there,” Kohl-Welles said.

The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, has been a leading critic of Rivers and her legislation — preferring Kohl-Welle’s legislation. In one story, The Stranger ran a picture of Rivers photoshopped with fangs and red Captain-Jack-Sparrow-like eyeliner, turning her into a kind of glamour-punk vampire.

When her husband first saw that photo, he told Rivers: “I don’t know whether to be offended or turned on.” Rivers, who keeps a copy on display in her Olympia office, said, “I think it’s a cool picture.”


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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 and on Twitter at @johnstang_8