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Which Way Forward? 

With recreational marijuana looming, lawmakers attempt to remake Washington's medical marijuana system

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In the normally stuffy atmosphere of a state legislative committee hearing, the crowd erupted, crying "Liar!" when the state Department of Health's Kristi Weeks said Washington was the only state without a registry to track medical marijuana patients. She quickly corrected herself: Some registries are voluntary.

The moment was just a preview of the barrage to come in the tense meeting. Since the 2012 passage of Initiative 502 legalizing recreational marijuana, much has been made of whether the new law would affect the state's already existing medical marijuana market.

In strict legal terms, the wording of the initiative didn't touch medical marijuana, but with the creation of a parallel market for recreational pot users, some legislators and rule-makers want to clamp down on the medical market, which they say remains too unregulated. They worry that lax regulations will allow recreational users to buy from the medical market, dooming the recreational experiment.

Now, lawmakers in Olympia are considering three proposals that would align the two systems. But some medical marijuana providers and patients worry that reform efforts could result in hardships for patients in need of medicine.

Each of the three bills would reduce the amount of marijuana patients can possess, eliminate collective gardens (while maintaining home grows) and create a statewide patient registry into which medical providers would enter information about medical marijuana patients. Each of the three reduces the amount patients can possess from 24 ounces to three ounces and from 15 plants to six, but offers different options for those who may need more. Two Senate bills allow doctors to specify increased amounts up to eight ounces or 15 plants, while the House bill allows the health care professional to set any increased amount, with the caveat that they must have tried lower amounts and alternative medicines previously.

One Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and the House bill from Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, would create a mandatory registry, allowing those who register to possess the new limits of medical marijuana. The proposal from Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, creates a voluntary registry and specifies that those patients who don't join the registry but have a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana will have the right to "affirmative defense," which doesn't prevent them from getting arrested, but allows them to argue medical necessity in court. (The registries also would provide tax breaks for medical patients: In Kohl-Welles' bill, it's an exemption from the 25 percent recreational retail tax specified in I-502; in Rivers', it's from both sales tax and the 25 percent.)

Under all three bills, the collective gardens currently serving patients would be phased out in favor of giving recreational stores "medical endorsements" to signify retailers with staff trained to advise medical marijuana patients on the complex science of which strains are best for certain symptoms — a skill set not every recreational budtender will have.

Despite the nuances, each bill was met with a mixed response in Olympia. In a community of medical marijuana patients and providers who face the intricacies of selling or using a product still considered illegal under federal law, the idea of a registry — not public, but accessible by police and state departments — is nerve-wracking.

"You're doing an experiment with patients' lives, and patients will die if you make the wrong decisions here," said Steve Sarich, an outspoken medical activist and opponent of I-502, during a House committee hearing.

Patients and providers also expressed fears that attempting to transition the medical market to recreational stores with special designations could be ineffective if recreational stores are not yet able to meet the medical demand when collective gardens are phased out.

Kohl-Welles says she believes aligning the systems while providing medical exemptions is the only way to preserve both patient access and public safety.

"I believe strongly that medical use is different and should be different than recreational," she says. "I'm trying in this bill to work out a system where patients can get the medicine they need." ♦

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