Can Medical Marijuana Survive in Washington State?
The Washington-based Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics (CCSE) is the body currently keeping the medical marijuana industry compliant, using “standards that are higher than is required by law,” according to Davis, its executive director. Though legally toothless, the group serves to fill the gap in state regulation by organizing inspections, providing certification, and encouraging distributors to follow guidelines so as to boost confidence in the industry.
Davis says the CCSE was formed in December 2011—mainly in response to the misgivings of city officials in Seattle, who expressed concern over the lack of regulation, “but did not have the means to carry it out.”
“Really,” he says, “the city asked us to do so.” Although medical marijuana had been legal for well over a decade, Davis says that as recently as 2008, he was one of the few medical marijuana shops open in Seattle. Then, he adds, “it just started taking off.”
Another marijuana entrepreneur—Luis Garcia, manager of Northwest Botanical Analysis, which tested and ranked the pot entries in the 2013 High Times US Cannabis Cup in Seattle—told me that the state has asked his company for advice on inspections. So long as marijuana connoisseurs lead the way in setting standards, it seems, at least some government agencies have more faith in their legitimacy.
“My elected officials know me, they call me, they ask me questions,” Davis says proudly. When community concerns have “risen to a police level,” he adds, local administrators have gone to him.
Davis maintains that what’s happening at the community level ultimately has the potential to attract federal intervention. He cites the raids in July. “They were raided for cause,” Davis says, pulling out a binder on the busts. “It was not random.”
“One of my jobs in Washington State is, if there’s a governmental action, to understand it,” he went on, paging through the warrants and other documents. The businesses in question were federally indicted in 2011, but no charges were ever filed. Davis suspects US Attorneys had given the owners a choice: disappear or be shut down. When they showed defiance in the face of this ultimatum, “the DEA came down on them like a ton of bricks.”
I-502 was designed to protect against such raids by addressing what the federal government has expressed as its biggest concerns, such as out-of state diversion and youth access. The ACLU’s Holcomb credits the tightness of these regulations with the initiative’s success. Indeed, two previous legalization initiatives by the group Sensible Washington failed to make the ballot in 2010 and 2011, despite their safety- and community-oriented rhetoric. In 2012, New Approach Washington, the group behind I-502, launched a campaign with similar language, but calling for more regulatory oversight.
“502 was pitched as being the most conservative marijuana legalization you can imagine, but it is still marijuana legalization,” Holcomb says, pointing out some of its most important—and controversial—aspects. The law banned public consumption and set a low bar for police to charge people with driving under the influence of drugs. The medical marijuana industry and some activists opposed such measures as heavy-handed, but they were in the minority.
Others opposed the way I-502 aimed to limit profits to keep marijuana businesses from morphing into something resembling the alcohol or tobacco industry. Under the law, distributors cannot own more than three 502 stores, and monopolies are discouraged by setting strict licensing requirements. Growers and processors may not be licensed in retail, for example, and licensed growers can utilize no more than 30,000 square feet. A cap on statewide production—80 metric tons per year—worried some activists, who expressed concern that it would perpetuate the black market. But most seem to agree that without such strict regulations, recreational marijuana legalization may end up looking like the medical model now under siege.
In January, the state’s working group on marijuana policy will submit formal regulatory recommendations to the next legislature. It will advise state officials to pass legislation mandating that medical marijuana providers abide by the same strict standards imposed by I-502 to guide recreational use. But in the absence of even so much as a licensing process for medical providers, meeting such standards could prove impossible. The group also recommends a legislative ban on growing at home for both individual patients and collective gardens. Should legislators take that advice, a patient’s marijuana supply will be capped at three ounces—a drastic reduction from the current twenty-four.
For Davis, the decision will be a matter of survival: “We are going to have to get something through the legislature that provides some sort of regulation and some sort of licensing system.”
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In the meantime, the enforcement landscape in Seattle has changed in important and unexpected ways. This summer at the Seattle Hempfest, cops passed out bags of Doritos with marijuana “Dos” and “Don’ts,” including “Don’t use pot in public” and “Do listen to Dark Side of the Moon at a reasonable volume.”
Seattle Police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb told me that legalization will “improve police-community relations…. It’s a barrier that’s being broken down,” he adds, “and that is kind of cool.”
The Doritos bags were part of a new public relations push by the Seattle police to cultivate a less adversarial image. The department even hired Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, a former blogger at the local alternative weekly The Stranger, who came up with a guide to getting stoned, “Marijwhatnow,” that quickly went viral. “We are a public service agency. We serve our city, and the law changed,” Whitcomb says. “So our position has always been: we want a clearly written law that will not put our officers in a difficult position…. And with 502, it looks like we have that.”
But no matter how liberal Seattle’s pot laws are, federal law remains in place. Students under the legal age can still lose federal tuition aid if they are arrested for pot in Washington; businesses can still drug-test their employees; and US Attorneys can order raids under the Controlled Substances Act.
Davis, for one, laughs off the notion that Barack Obama is invested in ordering busts. “It’s the US Attorneys themselves!” he says. He and Holcomb both say that one reason there have been so many more pot busts under Obama than George W. Bush is that there are simply “way more” dispensaries.
He is more concerned with getting a regulatory scheme in place that ensures his survival. “No industry exists without some sort of regulation,” he says, “some sort of compliance with the law.”
Also In This Issue
Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Why Its Always Been Time to Legalize Marijuana”
Mike Riggs: “Obama’s War on Pot”
Carl L. Hart: “Pot Reform’s Race Problem”
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: “Baking Bad: A Potted History of High Times”
Various Contributors: “The Drug War Touched My Life: Why I’m Fighting Back”
And only online…
J. Hoberman: “The Cineaste’s Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned”
Harmon Leon: “Pot Block! Trapped in the Marijuana Rescheduling Maze”
Seth Zuckerman: “Is Pot-Growing Bad for the Environment?”