Now What?

Medicinal patients and dispensaries navigate state marijuana reforms

Justin Johnson's patients are frantic. They're calling old dealers and scouring the black market to find the right products and quantity of marijuana it takes to manage their disease, pain or anxiety without going bankrupt.

Johnson owns Alternative MMD Co-Op. The marijuana co-op opened in 2009, but like hundreds of medical dispensaries across the state, its doors will close next July.

"I'm stuck in a hard place," says Johnson, a medicinal grower for more than 30 years. "I could turn to the black market and run the risk of helping my patients... but my time in a cage isn't worth it."

In April, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a massive marijuana reform bill that kills medical marijuana dispensaries, effectively folding the unregulated domain into the recreational system established by Initiative 502.

Under the bill, medicinal dispensaries will have to apply for licensing through the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and if approved, maintain a patient registry for the state. On the flip side, licensed recreational stores wishing to sell to medicinal patients must carry certain products yet to be decided by the Liquor Control Board, and maintain a patient registry.

The bill will affect patients in untold ways, as it changes everything from tax breaks to the way doctors prescribe marijuana to the amount patients are able to buy, carry and grow. Medicinal advocates like Johnson are irate.

"What the government is doing is creating black market proliferation," he says. "People's rights are being trampled on, and they're creating felons of people that don't need to be felons... what they're doing is big business."

Johnson says most of his patients are turning to the black market not only for cheaper prices, but due to the controversial patient registry, which the federal government has historically accessed to prosecute people.

"There is no one to protect us from the feds," he says. "Who is going to guarantee the DEA isn't going to request these patient lists?"

Fed up with Washington's politics, Johnson will open a medicinal dispensary next month in Portland, where voters legalized marijuana with Measure 91 in 2014. His co-op will remain open to Spokane patients in the interim.

"We are going to run Alternative MMD Co-Op until someone provides a cease-and-desist letter," he says. ♦