OLYMPIA — Supporters of the current medical marijuana system in Washington state crowded a public hearing on Wednesday to decry proposed changes.
The Health Care &Wellness Committee held its first hearing on a measure seeking to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana system in order to reconcile it with the new legal recreational market.
The changes under the bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Eileen Cody include reducing the amount of marijuana and number of plants patients can possess, doing away with collective gardens and establishing a patient registry.
Lawmakers have worried that the largely unregulated medical system would undercut the taxed, recreational industry. Meanwhile, U.S. Justice Department officials have warned that the state’s medical pot status quo is untenable.
“Neither one can move forward if we don’t get regulated,” said Cody, the committee chairwoman, after the hearing.
Cody said she was confident the measure had enough support to advance out of the committee and that House and Senate members are working together on the issue. “I think something will move,” she said of the bill’s chances for approval.
The state has allowed medical use of marijuana since 1998 and the passage of Initiative 502 last year allowed the sale of the drug to adults for recreational use at licensed stores, which are expected to open by this summer.
But several medical marijuana advocates say the changes will unfairly affect their access.
Ryan Day, of Thurston County, told lawmakers his 5-year-old son has intractable epilepsy and was experiencing more than 100 seizures a day until he started taking an extracted liquid form of medical marijuana.
Day said he wants to grow the plants his son needs at home, but the plan under discussion is too limiting and wouldn’t allow him to do so. “Under the current proposal, we wouldn’t be able to provide the medicine my son needs,” he said.
Day said that extracts require more plants than what the proposed law provides. And to purchase the medicine from an authorized store, his costs would exceed $15,000 a year.
“If this bill goes through, you’re going to put me and my family in the impossible situation of treating our son and becoming criminals,” he said. “We are good taxpaying, law-abiding citizens who just want to help our son.”
In December, the state’s Liquor Control Board gave its final recommendations to the Legislature about how it believes the medical system can be brought under the umbrella of Initiative 502.
It suggested allowing licensed I-502 stores to sell medical cannabis, which would be subject to the same high excise taxes as recreational pot. However, patients who sign up for a proposed mandatory state registry of medical marijuana users would be exempt from paying sales taxes. The board called for patients to be allowed to grow six plants. Under current regulations, they can grow 15.
The board also suggested eliminating collective gardens, and cutting how much pot patients can have from 24 ounces to 3 ounces — which is still more than the 1 ounce adults are allowed under the recreational law.
A separate bill being heard by the House Finance Committee would create a sales and use tax exemption for qualified patients that purchase marijuana or marijuana-infused products for medical use from authorized retail outlets licensed by the Liquor Control Board.
Cody’s bill doesn’t address the taxing structure, but does integrate the suggestions on reduced number of plants and the number of ounces possessed by a patient, as well as the elimination of collective gardens. However, Cody’s bill also eliminates the ability for patients to grow their own cannabis after July 1,2020, which one Republican lawmaker on the panel questioned.
“At this point you would be establishing a Liquor Control Board monopoly after 2020,” said Rep. Matt Manweller of Ellensburg, a response that was met with applause by supporters of medical marijuana in the crowd.
Another issue that raises the ire of the medical marijuana community is the idea of a patient registry that is available to the police.
Don Pierce, legislative director at the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said that a verified card is important for police to have access to in the changing landscape.
“We’re going to have a system where there’s going to be different rules for different people with the regard to the possession of a similar, if not the same, substance,” he said. “We need to know whose rules apply to whom and the only way we can do that is with some sort of a patient recognition card and access 24 hours a day to a system that allows us to verify that.”
The medical marijuana overhaul bill is House Bill 2149. The sales tax exemption bill is House Bill 2198.