In Our View: Manage Medical Pot

Unregulated market defies voters' intent, will hurt patients, recreational industry

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Whether it originates from a legislator such as state Sen. Ann Rivers or from a potential ballot initiative, regulation of Washington’s medical marijuana industry is necessary and overdue.

Rivers, R-La Center, pushed for such regulation during this year’s legislative session, attempting to create a state registry of medical marijuana patients and providers. And while her efforts fell short, Rivers’ description of medical marijuana dispensaries as the “Wild West” is not merely hyperbole. As The (Tacoma) News Tribune wrote editorially, “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.”

That points out the need for effective management of medical marijuana, which was approved by state voters in 1998, as well as recreational marijuana, which was approved in 2012 for residents 21 and older. Another example of the need for management is the fact that the U.S. Justice Department will not allow unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries — a condition the feds set down as part of their tenuous promise to not crack down on recreational use of the drug in the state. The medicinal law allows qualified patients to grow medical marijuana or designate someone to grow on their behalf, but there is no oversight; because of that, a commercial marketplace has developed, and a state court of appeals has upheld the right of local governments to ban dispensaries.

At the crux of the issue is the reluctance of government officials throughout the state when it comes to marijuana sales. While voters have approved recreational use of the drug, a ruling by the state attorney general determined that local jurisdictions may effectively place moratoriums on the establishment of marijuana businesses, and many governmental groups have done just that. The Clark County commissioners, for example, have declined to approve licenses for such businesses.

But officials cannot ignore the issue indefinitely, and lawmakers are going to have to get involved sooner or later. The disparate laws and disparate marketplaces for medical marijuana and recreational marijuana — not to mention the threat of a federal clampdown — demand that consumers be provided with some clarity. As The Seattle Times wrote editorially, “Having two parallel markets is untenable and inconsistent with the legal marijuana experiment voters authorized in 2012's Initiative 502.” Among other problems is the fact that medical marijuana users typically are looking for strains of the drug that have high analgesic but low hallucinogenic qualities; they are looking for pain relief more than a buzz.

Clarity is a portion of what Rivers is hoping to accomplish, yet marijuana activists disagree with her approach. Kirk Ludden is among those seeking signatures to land a measure on the November ballot that would approve measures for medical marijuana, creating a governing board but not a registry of users or suppliers.

Either way, it is time for the state to clean up the chaotic medicinal marketplace, ensuring that those who use the drug to alleviate pain have access to what they need. “What really concerns me is that those folks that have relied on medical marijuana may have it taken away,” Rivers said. It also is time for some solutions to be presented so that the medical marijuana market and the recreational market can coexist. Voters have indicated on multiple occasions exactly what they are seeking; now it is up to the state to provide it.