Legalization Is Not To Blame For Washington's Medical Marijuana Mess

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Lately, medical marijuana in Washington State has been under attack from legislators who wish to seriously reduce the limits and availability of medicine for patients.  The roll-out of recreational legalization in the state has subjected patients to much worry; however, I do not accept the pity party going on in Washington State, complaining that legalization has ruined medical marijuana.  No.  Medical marijuana activists in Washington ruined medical marijuana.

Washington I 502

See, the leaders in Washington's marijuana movement were more than happy to endorse and even encourage the "Wild West" atmosphere there.  Beginning with the vague "60 day supply" written in the law, rather than any fixed limits, knowing that in pot-friendly areas "60 day supply" would be a whole lot of marijuana (for patients, of course, nobody would ever over grow and distribute their Washington weed in, say, Chicago, where they can make huge profits.  Why, that would give a black eye to medical marijuana and might convince legislators it is out of control!)

Then as their "dispensaries" began to flourish, did their activists work hard to put a dispensary regulation initiative on the ballot, like we did in Oregon in 2004, and try again (but fail to make the ballot) in 2008, and try again in 2010?  Nope.  They were more than willing to exploit the "We're not dispensaries; we're caregivers for one patient at one time as they line up in single file in front of my storefront counter" loophole.  (Yes, there was a lot of winking and nudging at Oregon dispensaries, but we showed that we recognized it and were willing to regulate it.)

Then they were busy convincing people that every single patient in Washington State was so seriously desperately ill the "60 day supply" had to be 35 ounces (my friend Dr. Sunil Aggarwal MD suggested 71 ounces!) eventually settling on 24 ounces.  Yes, SOME patients need that much... but if they'd gone for, say, "six ounces, but a doctor can recommend more if needed", they would have secured more good will with the public and legislators.  (Yeah, we have 24 ounces, too, but we traded that for affirmative defense on amounts greater - again, building trust with the public and legislators, showing we care about regulation.)

The dispensaries continued to develop, winking and nudging along the way.  More years passed where activists could have worked on a dispensary initiative again, building up good will in the community and appearing as if we care about keeping things regulated and benefiting the state.  Nope.  Instead, they were focused on "Sensible Washington", the eminently insensible plan to ask voters to completely repeal and invalidate ALL marijuana laws and leave it up to the legislature to regulate marijuana (you know, that same legislature they're castigating now for destroying medical marijuana.)  It never had a shot at the ballot, never got any serious institutional support, never got half as many signatures as it needed, and never generated any serious funding in 2010.  So they did it again in an off-off-year election in 2011 with the same results.  Once it became clear the locals weren't operating in political reality, the big national money started looking for other legalization options.

Meanwhile, the legislature finally gets around to writing laws to regulate dispensaries, most of which brought howls from their activist community.  They howled about finally getting protection from arrest (because it would require a *gasp* mandatory registry! like every other medical marijuana state except California, comparing it to a sex offender registry), they howled about the "60 day super allowance gone" in favor of a mere 15 plants (more than any other states' limit except Oregon and California), they howled that the "one patient at one time" loophole was being closed, they howled about no longer being able to backdate recommendations (a.k.a. "fraud"), and then when the governor reacted to raid threats from US attorneys, she line-item vetoed their dispensary regulations (so... why are they pissed about I-502, when it was Chris Gregoire's veto that killed regulated dispensaries, which, had they been operating, might have been easily folded into legalization, a la Colorado?)

But the partially-passed SB5073 did contain a new loophole: collective gardens.  Ten patients could collectively garden 45 plants.  So now the "one patient at one time caregiver" dispensaries became "one patient at a time joins my ten-person collective as I kick the tenth person off the list" dispensaries.  Also came the easing of getting recommendations with the addition of naturopaths and DOs, leading to the infamous doc-in-a-tent at Hempfestand a line of twenty-somethings with serious and debilitating illnesses they need 1.5lbs of cannabis for before they joined the mosh pit at Main Stage.

In this vacuum of any serious mature attempts to legalize marijuana or regulate medical marijuana, in steps New Approach Washington with I-502 - a marijuana legalization law written by an alcohol drinker to be regulated by a liquor control board.  I was working for NORML at the time this org was first cranking up for the fight.  We pushed them for no per se DUID, we pushed for allowing home grow, and we pushed for consideration of medical marijuana.  But the wink-nudge distrust of the marijuana movement there made it tough for us to get any political traction.  Major funders and high-profile backers wouldn't join without the per se DUID.  Home grow was shot down because polling showed it cost points (I believed that was a public reaction to the impression mass medical fields were leading to out of state diversion).  And the activists in Washington insisted quite strongly that any legalization measure didn't touch medical (which I-502 did not; you can't find a single line in it that changes - or protects - the medical law.)

So, here they are, watching their medical marijuana program being reduced down to, say, a Hawaii, Maine, or Colorado, wailing about taxes most patients in most states would love to have the opportunity to pay, wailing about a mere six plants and three ounces, and heaping all their opprobrium on legalization of marijuana through I-502.  That's a whole lot easier than admitting their failure to lead, failure to make reasonable political compromises (really, opposing a registry that would protect patients from arrest?), failure to build working relationships with national-level well-funded marijuana lobbies, and failure to address the obvious glaring subterfuge of the medical marijuana law.

I think it is illustrative to compare Oregon and Washington at this point.  We both have the highest limits in America, we both have wink-and-nudge dispensaries, we both have a conservative Eastern bloc that hates marijuana, we both fought for marijuana legalization.  But our activists fought to reign in dispensaries through three initiatives, made political compromises in Salem, built coalitions with national funders, and with a couple of exceptions didn't announce to the world how brazenly they were bending and breaking the medical law.  Now we're looking at 8oz/4pl as the *conservative* measure with a shot at the ballot AND we have well regulated, functional dispensaries AND we're adding conditions to our OMMA.

I wonder what these I-502 haters thought should happen?  Reject I-502 and the wink-nudge dispensaries would have just hummed along?  I seriously doubt it - with a legalization defeat there would have been more political will to clamp down on pot.  Thousands more recreational users had to get a misdemeanor and a mandatory 24 hour jail stint every year until finally, how many years after the already 14 years medical marijuana had to get its shit together?  How many more unfunded, no-shot-in-hell, pie-in-the-sky signature drives for the initiative that REALLY makes Washington marijuana the Wild West?

Basically, their complaint is that tightly regulated recreational marijuana exposed their unregulated loophole medical marijuana, and we should have kept marijuana criminal so they could keep exploiting loopholes.

Meanwhile, I'm genuinely sad for authentic desperately ill Washingtonians who will suffer more hardship because of the failure of their activist leaders to put patients' concerns above those of profit-making loophole-abusers and their own ego-fueled beliefs about how to legalize marijuana that ignore simple political realities (write the TV ad that convinces a soccer mom we should just repeal all marijuana laws... I'd love to read that.

Source: National Cannabis Coalition - make a donation

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