Medical Marijuana Gets Complicated in Washington State

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 Recreational vs. Medicinal, Part 2 of a 2 part series on cannabis in Washington State

During its signature drive and campaign, voters were told that I-502 would legalize cannabis and there would be no changes to the medical cannabis laws in Washington State.  This has proven to be untrue.

To understand legalization’s impact on medical marijuana in Washington state, it’s important to consider the state’s rather complicated history of cannabis law and regulation.

Photo: Tyler J. Markwart/Green Ambrosia

Photo: Tyler J. Markwart/Green Ambrosia

Washington’s 1998 medical marijuana bill allowed patients to grow plants themselves or designate a caregiver to grow it for them.

In 2011, Washington State Senate Bill 5073 established a regulated dispensary-model market to replace the free market patient-to-patient transaction system that had operated since the original law passed in 1998.

However, before the bill was signed into law, then-Governor Chris Gregoire line-item vetoed the bill’s provisions requiring government regulation of dispensaries. Gregoire believed that if state employees were in charge of regulating the industry, they could be subject to federal prosecution if they engaged in the licensing of marijuana grows or dispensaries. And so effectively, the version of SB-5073 that was signed into law allowed dispensaries to open across Washington State with virtually no regulation or oversight, creating a free-market medical cannabis economy unique to the state of Washington.

But when Washington State legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, everything changed.

The “Legalization Law,” I-502, gave control of Washington’s recreational program to the Washington State Liquor Control Board (LCB). The LCB last week asked the Board of Health (BOH) to create new regulations for the medical cannabis industry, creating major controversy between the established Washington medical cannabis community, the LCB, and the BOH.

Photo: Tyler J. Markwart/Green Ambrosia

Photo: Tyler J. Markwart/Green Ambrosia

Basically, the LCB has stated that the new rules designated in I-502 are sufficient for all cannabis users, both recreational and medicinal.  The LCB has called on the BOH to create new regulations for medical cannabis, removing the ability of patients to grow their own medicine at home or to act freely as caregivers to other patients. Patients would instead have to purchase their medical marijuana at dispensaries, which would be subject to new licensing and regulation. The LCB also suggested taxing medical cannabis patients on their medicine so that the state could continue to profit, even if the money is coming from disabled constituents who are on fixed incomes or who are struggling to survive.

There are also no regulations stating that insurance companies must pay for cannabis as a medicine.  Despite legalization under I-502, cannabis was never actually removed from Schedule I of the Washington State Controlled Substance Act, so doctors are still unable to “prescribe” it to patients, and have to continue to “recommend” cannabis in a written medical document which has little to no standing in the insurance field.

Photo: Tyler J. Markwart/Green Ambrosia

Photo: Tyler J. Markwart/Green Ambrosia

Washingtonians took a very progressive step forward in 2012: a majority of voters decided that the War on Drugs is failing, and that cannabis prohibition is more detrimental to the community than cannabis itself.

But the war is not over; it still rages on. Until these issues are resolved, cannabis is not truly “legal” in Washington State, and the state’s medical marijuana program is facing new restrictions that will create major disruption for patients, caregivers, and dispensary operators.

Even in a state where cannabis is “legal,” advocates must continue to play an active role in keeping our rights protected, because prohibitionists will still take any chance they can get to take our freedoms and civil liberties away.