Pot bills would rework medical marijuana system

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: January 21, 2014, 6:27 PM

 
photoState Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center

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A pair of bills under consideration in the Legislature aim to better align the state’s medical marijuana system with its still-evolving market for recreational pot.

The Senate Health Care Committee on Tuesday heard testimony on two proposals, including one introduced by state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. Senate Bill 5887 would, among other things, set up a state registry for medical marijuana patients and providers, and establish new limits on the amount of marijuana one could possess. The bill would also direct a portion of marijuana-related tax revenue to local counties and cities for law enforcement and public safety. Other tax revenue would go toward research and funding the registry.

“This is a very complex bill, and we tried to figure out as many answers as we could,” Rivers said at the committee hearing, which was broadcast online by TVW. “What this bill is not, for the record, is an attack on medical marijuana.”

Rivers noted that her father used medical marijuana. The proposals before the Legislature this year are an opportunity to have a “rational, adult conversation” about the issue, she said.

Rivers first introduced her bill last year. It was discussed Tuesday with a similar bill from state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. Kohl-Welles’ proposal, Senate Bill 6178, shares many things in common with Rivers’ plan. It would create a verification program and new limits on medical marijuana possession, though not entirely in line with Rivers’ bill. Among the co-sponsors on the Kohl-Welles bill is state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.

Kohl-Welles said she’s worked on the marijuana issue for years, with both parties, “because pain and suffering are not partisan.”

In both proposals, information on medical marijuana patients and providers would be available to medical professionals and law enforcement, but not subject to public disclosure.

Several residents and advocates who addressed the committee Tuesday made it clear they don’t like the idea of taking a medical marijuana system that’s largely unregulated and aligning it with a complicated, uncertain recreational marijuana landscape that’s still being hammered out. Others, including the Washington State Association of Counties and the Association of Washington Cities, generally supported both bills.

Voters approved the use of medical marijuana in the state with Initiative 692 in 1998. In 2012, voters approved Initiative 502, which allows the recreational use of marijuana. Retail sales haven’t yet begun as the emerging system continues to take shape.

Under the state’s medical marijuana law, qualifying patients can use it with the proper documentation of a health care professional. There is no age limit for patients. People can grow medical marijuana for themselves, or designate a provider to grow on their behalf.

There is no state agency charged with regulatory oversight of the medical marijuana program. Loopholes have allowed the system to essentially become a commercial marketplace in many cases, Rick Garza, director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, told the committee.

Initiative 502 legalized the recreational use of marijuana for people 21 and older. State officials are now navigating a complex set of legal questions as they set up the new market.

“The people in I-502 sent us a very clear signal that they wanted to legalize marijuana, but they also wanted it tightly regulated,” Rivers said in an interview. “The problem with the medical marijuana (program) is that it’s completely unregulated.”

In “502 stores,” for example, customers would know a lot of detail about the marijuana for sale — where it came from, its THC content and other information, Rivers said. No such requirements exist for medical marijuana, she said.

Under both bills discussed Tuesday, medical marijuana patients would still be able to buy and possess more than recreational users. Rivers’ bill would allow as many as six plants to be grown at home, while Kohl-Welles’ version would allow as many as 10 plants.

The proposals would both phase out collective gardens, which are allowed under the existing medical marijuana program. Rivers’ bill would eliminate collective gardens as of July 2016. The Kohl-Welles proposal would phase them out by July 2015.

The committee didn’t act on either bill Tuesday.