Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Hazy Future of Medical Marijuana

Unable to continue waiting for the state to provide regulatory guidance, some local governments are considering taking action locally, in an effort to control the medical marijuana industry. Both Seattle and Tacoma recently proposed radical changes to medical marijuana sales in their cities. Seattle’s Proposed Marijuana Regulatory License would put in place a secondary regulatory system for collective gardens and retailers, and Tacoma’s marijuana enforcement plan will end medical sales except through state-licensed recreational shops. These changes come as no surprise, as current limited regulation of medical marijuana is an increasing cause of concern for the public and for local law enforcement.

Due to the complications of implementing the original medical marijuana legislation, there are few controls on the location of stores, their density, the quality of the product, the validity of patient authorizations, and the legitimacy of the business.

The current system has been an interesting demonstration of the rules of a free marketplace, but it has also created an atmosphere of questionable legality. Keeping marijuana business operations fully legal is a challenge, due to vague or inconsistent information from state and federal agencies. In comparison to the recreational system’s heavily regulated licensing, tracking, and taxation, it becomes obvious that state legislators will want to make some changes.

Lawmakers have recognized that a truly successful recreational market depends upon the state reconciling the medical market’s disparities in labeling, taxation, traceability, quality control, and allowable locations. During the 2014 legislative session, the state senate and house debated several bills addressing regulation of medical recreational marijuana, but none made much progress.

One of the bills that received the most attention last year, SB 6178, sponsored by Jeanne Kohl-Welles, addressed many of the problems of the existing medical marijuana system and proposed more closely aligning the medical and recreational systems. SB 6178 was reviewed by the State Senate but never made it out of the Ways and Means Committee last year. 

Senator Kohl-Welles will propose a new bill for the upcoming 2015 session. The most notable provisions of her bill will:
  • Permit home grows (6 plants) for all adults over 21
  • Simplify taxation to a single retail-level tax, eliminating production/processing taxes and eligible for deduction from federal taxes
  • Eliminate Collective Gardens by August 1, 2016
  • Create a state registry for medical marijuana patients, to provide tax exemptions and arrest protection
  • Support training, standards, and an endorsement option for health care providers
  • Allow delivery of marijuana products
  • Facilitate research on and about marijuana use
It is vital to a healthy industry that changes in regulation come from the state, rather than a patchwork of changeable regulations in local jurisdictions. The people of Washington State need clear guidance regarding the possession and use of this newly legal product, and that guidance should come from the state or federal level. Although the desire for local control is understandable, local lawmakers should regard their changes as temporary, and plan to fully reconsider the situation once new state legislation is in place.

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