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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Marijuana Balancing Act

Sen. Rivers' effort to reconcile medical, recreational industries a positive step

The Columbian
Published: March 25, 2015, 12:00am

For state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, reconciling Washington’s medical marijuana industry with the state’s burgeoning recreational marijuana businesses amounts to a legislative high-wire performance. There are concerns about patients and customers, about differing tax structures, and about the unregulated nature of the well-established medical marijuana industry — issues that present legislators with a difficult balancing act.

But balance they must. With that goal in mind, Rivers has introduced the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, a bill designed to align two related-but-disparate industries. The bill passed the Senate by a 36-11 vote and now is being considered in the House of Representatives. And throughout the process, it has generated debate that can be traced to marijuana’s recent history in the state.

In 1998, 59 percent of Washington voters said yes when asked, “Shall the medical use of marijuana for certain terminal or debilitating conditions be permitted, and physicians authorized to advise patients about medical use of marijuana?” That launched an industry that has thrived with little oversight, allowing users to grow their own marijuana or have others grow it for them. Then, in 2012, voters approved recreational use of the drug for adults 21 and older, creating a conflict between the two marijuana markets.

The time has come for that conflict to end. As Gov. Jay Inslee told The Columbian, lawmakers must facilitate a situation where the “medical marijuana market works alongside the recreational market and is regulated to ensure patient safety.”

If only it were that simple. As legislators broach the topic, many medical marijuana users are fearful of changes to a system that has come to serve their needs well while remaining problematic for the citizens of Washington. As a recent article by Columbian reporter Lauren Dake pointed out, little information is available about how many medical marijuana patients are in the state; about how many doctors, naturopaths, and nurse practitioners are prescribing medical marijuana; and about how many medical marijuana dispensaries are in operation. To a large extent, it works as a black market industry that is right out in the open.

“We don’t know how many patients there are and what their needs are, what their conditions are or where they live,” Kristi Weeks, director of the state Department of Health’s office of legal services, said.

Medical marijuana users prefer it that way, and the most controversial aspect of Rivers’ proposal would create a registry of medical marijuana users. That item has been amended to make the registry optional, but lawmakers should take the next logical step. Considering that use of the drug remains a federal crime, and that a registry would simply add another layer of bureaucracy for the state, the registry should be eliminated from the proposal.

But there are other issues that do call for a legislative solution. The unregulated nature of medical marijuana means many dispensaries do not collect or pay sales tax on their product, which leads to lower prices and serves to undermine the recreational industry. There also is concern from some medical marijuana users about the prospect of visiting a recreational store in order to purchase their medicine.

The balancing act is difficult, but constituents are well-served by Rivers’ efforts to build parameters for an unregulated industry that has an estimated 150,000 patients in Washington. Having two marijuana industries in the state is nonsensical; the trick is figuring out the best way to mold them into one.