Can Medical Marijuana Survive in Washington State?
On July 24, nearly nine months after Washington State passed Initiative 502, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana by adults, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided four medical marijuana “access points.” The first major federal pot busts since voters passed the groundbreaking law in November sent an immediate chill through the marijuana-law reform community, as speculation arose that the Obama administration was sending an all-too-familiar message to the states.
But upon closer inspection, it appeared that more complicated forces might be at play. The targets were accused of operating outside not just federal law, but state law as well—for example, allegedly by hiding huge cash profits from the state and selling large amounts of marijuana to people (likely without prescriptions), including undercover DEA agents.
The raids would provide a window into the evolving marijuana-law landscape in Washington, in particular the tensions between a largely unregulated medical marijuana industry and a relatively strict new set of parameters guiding recreational use. I-502 added significant rules and restrictions to marijuana cultivation, distribution and possession that its architects hoped would reduce local—and federal—concerns about legalization. This included putting the Washington State Liquor Control Board in charge of regulating the recreational market. Meanwhile, there is no regulatory agency to enforce the few rules on the books when it comes to medical marijuana, which has been legal since 1998.
I-502 will take effect in January; by next summer, more than 300 licensed marijuana stores will open their doors throughout the state to adult consumers legally allowed to possess up to an ounce of pot. This will include twenty-one stores in Seattle. Although the number of medical dispensaries will still dwarf recreational shops—Seattle alone has 200—providers have reason to worry they could find themselves under siege. The Liquor Control Board is poised to tell state legislators that they must crack down on Washington’s largely unregulated medical pot industry. Under renewed scrutiny by voters and federal prosecutors, medical marijuana providers in the Evergreen State will either have to clean up or get cleaned out.
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“There’s two ways of being,” says john Davis, CEO of the Northwest Patient Resource Center (NWPRC). “There’s being completely invisible or being completely visible.”
Davis chooses the latter. He pays his taxes scrupulously and operates a legitimate, law-abiding business. As he gave me a tour of his Seattle medical marijuana shop in September, he made it clear that it had been designed with professionalism and neighborliness in mind. The entrance is clean and sterile, and unlike other medical “access points,” it has an unlocked front door inviting anyone into the lobby, where there is a public bathroom.
Neither the name nor the sign indicate that marijuana is sold here, and there are none of the decorative statements typically associated with stoner culture—no tapestries on the walls or framed Bob Marley photographs. Smoking out back or in the parking lot will get you banned from the shop.
Davis sells dozens upon dozens of marijuana strains and products, from tinctures and hash oil vaporizers to topicals and sodas. They’re on display behind a glass counter, hidden from the windows by a privacy wall. He says he caters not to young stoners in pot-leaf T-shirts, but to a demographic that is “underserved”: women in their 50s or older. “I have a good number of older ladies that have got some pain issues—especially that have developed an unhealthy relationship with opiates—and they have discovered that this is a good way to lessen that, or to get off of them completely,” he says. Davis smiles as he pulls out a tiny gold cylinder. “This is popular with my LOLs—my ‘little old ladies’—because this is an oral suspension. Gold… looks like perfume. Just takes a couple squirts. You can do it in the movie theater—nobody gives you a second look.”
This particular concentrated hash oil sells for $40. The 3.5-milliliter vial contains 2.5 milliliters of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
On the cutting edge of medical marijuana is a variety of high-potency products made by extracting cannabis’s essential oils—not just THC, but also CBD, a chemical compound that has shown a variety of medical benefits. Advocates say that CBD is effective in calming seizure disorders, controlling inflammation and—as early research suggests—potentially reducing tumor growth. The effectiveness of CBD in treating the life-threatening seizures of Charlotte Figi, a 7-year-old with Dravet syndrome, was among the considerations that convinced CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta to reverse his position on medical marijuana.
But stocking such sophisticated products does not make Davis’s operation exactly legal. He is one of hundreds of “safe-access point” owners operating under legal loopholes in Washington. The state’s medical marijuana law technically never legalized dispensaries, but it did allow “collective gardens” that permit patients to become providers, with the freedom to grow up to forty-five plants and possess up to seventy-two ounces of marijuana at a time.
The law states that someone 18 or older can be “the designated provider to only one patient at a time”—language aimed at creating a smaller provider-to-patient ratio. But Alison Holcomb, the criminal-justice project director for the ACLU of Washington State and an architect of I-502, explains that “pioneers of the entrepreneurial spirit” interpreted this to mean one transaction at a time. Multiple “collective gardens” sprang up right next to each other and began to look a lot like dispensaries. As the focus in Washington shifts to tightening medical marijuana restrictions, these gardens—and dispensaries—may be banned altogether.
“Presumably,” Holcomb says, “a 502 store will be where you can go in and have a whole range of various products you can buy. Then the question becomes: Is there a reason why you should have a parallel industry? Why would you have a licensed, regulated medical marijuana industry side by side with a 502 industry open to anybody 21 and over?”
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