OLYMPIA, WA — About 250 medical marijuana supporters rallied at the state capitol in Olympia Wednesday to protest an amendment to pending budget bills that would give the state Liquor Control Board control over the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Liquor Control Board is charged with overseeing the state’s forthcoming recreational marijuana retail market, and medical marijuana patients worry that incorporation of the medical marijuana program into the LCB’s control could lead to taxation of medical marijuana, the regulation of medical use, and age restrictions requiring patients to be 21 or older.
Draft versions of both the House and Senate budgets would require the state Liquor Control Board to develop new recommendations for how to tax and license medical marijuana, and to deliver those policy recommendations to lawmakers by January.
Washington’s voter-approved I-502 levies a new marijuana excise tax of 25 percent on each producer, processor and retailer of recreational marijuana. Advocates say that if such a tax were imposed on the medical marijuana industry, many patients would be unable to afford their medicine.
“There is no other medication that is regulated and controlled by the Liquor Control Board,” said Steve Sarich, head of the Cannabis Action Coalition, who organized the rally. “They are absolutely unqualified to determine what is, or isn’t, in the best medical interest of medical cannabis patients.”
Sarich said that while regulations would be welcomed by the medical marijuana community, combining medical marijuana and recreational marijuana oversight under the Liquor Control Board is the wrong approach.
“I know that patients and their providers would welcome common sense regulations,” Sarich stated. ” We’re simply asking legislators to work with us in developing these regulations, rather than turning over decisions that impact our medical care to the state’s liquor distributor. I think this is a reasonable request and we hope the legislature is listening.”
Supporters of combining both the recreational marijuana markets and medical marijuana program under the control of one entity argue that without oversight, the unregulated, untaxed medical marijuana dispensaries will undercut the recreational industry.
Brian Smith, spokesperson for the Liquor Control Board, says that they aren’t considering medical marijuana at this time, and remain focused on establishing the recreational marijuana market.
“We’re focused on recreational marijuana,” Smith said. “If the Legislature wants us to take on medical marijuana the board will take it on then.”
Washington’s medical marijuana industry is largely unregulated. Under Washington’s existing medical marijuana law, patients or caregivers can grow their own medicine, but there is no provision for sales. Since state law does not provide for dispensaries, some prosecutors have gone after them.
A 2011 bill sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) would have created a regulatory system for the medical marijuana industry, but then Governor Chris Gregoire vetoed most of the bill over concerns about federal interference in the state’s attempt to regulate the medical marijuana market.
Sen. Kohl-Welles said in a statement Wednesday that she is planning to introduce legislation next year that would once again address regulating the state’s medical marijuana industry.
“Although we have made steady progress on establishing a safe, reliable system for procuring medical cannabis, several areas need clarification, such as age limits, taxation of medical marijuana, collective gardens and regulation of health care providers,” Kohl-Welles said. “I intend to use the 2014 legislative session to make sure the system serves patients and also works within the context of the emerging landscape under I-502 implementation.”