The Columbian / Associated Press

Merging recreational, medical pot has backers, opponents

If medical marijuana joins the recreational sector, Clark County stores say they’re more than willing to expand their operations to accommodate that market.

But doing that will require some changes, and also will also add some uncertainty for patients who need medical-specific marijuana products. Recreational businesses say they’re up to the task, but medical growers say they’re concerned whether the needs of their patients will continue to be met.

And the decision will likely come down to one of the marijuana bills moving through the Legislature this session.

Of the various marijuana-related bills, SB 5052 seems to be getting the most attention. That bill would move medical marijuana into the I-502 recreational system under control of the state Liquor Control Board, which would be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Board.

A competing bill, HB 2058, would have provided a new licensing structure for nonprofit medical dispensaries under the Department of Health and for growers under the Department of Agriculture. It failed to move out of its policy committee prior to a Feb. 20 deadline and is off the table.

Still, most medical growers would have preferred the latter, while recreational stores tend to prefer the former. And patients could easily get caught in the middle.

‘I don’t think it’s fair’

For his part, Tom Lauerman, a medical marijuana grower in Vancouver, said he thinks the two market areas should remain apart.

“One is health-related, the other is not,” Lauerman said. “They need to be separated.”

He also thinks legitimate medical growers should be grandfathered into the distribution structure if medical marijuana is moved into the recreational system.

“I don’t think it’s fair to all the farmers who have been doing this for years,” Lauerman said. “We’re the pioneers. Just because the recreational side has money and we don’t doesn’t mean they get to control everything.”

Medical growers often don’t get much of a profit out of their work. Spending $1,000 to apply for a license was out of his reach when the I-502 process began, said Lauerman, who recently had to file for bankruptcy protection to save his farm.

“I didn’t want to chase after all that, and I didn’t have the money,” Lauerman said. “There were people buying licenses that just wanted to sell them at a profit. That’s not really what medical marijuana is about.”

But recreational growers who paid the fees, many of whom started off working in the medical marijuana industry, say it’s unfair to them to let medical growers just hop over to their side of the industry without going through the same strict licensing process that they had to complete.

Brian Stroh, owner of CannaMan Farms, a small indoor recreational grower in Vancouver, said he doesn’t think many of the state’s medical growers will be able to transition into I-502, especially considering the recreational market already has an abundance of product from an unusually large outdoor harvest this past season.

“We’ve got too much supply and too many licensed growers to add more,” Stroh said. “(The Liquor Control Board) know they need to get more retail going, and I think they’ll bring more of that in, but I don’t think that will work on the production side.”

Medical growers would also have to comply with much stricter testing requirements on their products in a new system, although many medical growers say they support that idea after years of a mostly unregulated system.

“Everything needs to be more tested from now on, and they really need to set a standard across the board,” Lauerman said. “And as for illegal dispensaries, you need to only have legitimate ones. We need to weed out the blatant drug dealers from the people that are there to help patients.”

However it works out, Stroh said his farm could easily provide medical products for patients, especially if there was a strong need for certain items such as high-CBD strains used to treat pain, Stroh said.

“We’ve already got the (high CBD) Wilber strain, and we could look to grow more of that,” Stroh said. “If it makes sense business-wise, we’ll do that all day long.”

He added that while larger medical growers will have to shut down, move elsewhere or find some other way to enter the system, small medical collectives can still grow their own strains under SB 5052, should it pass.

Still, Lauerman said there are some products that recreational-focused stores and growers might not be so eager to create.

“What, like suppositories? That’s probably not something recreational stores would want, but patients need them,” he said with a laugh. “Also some of the concentrates like RSO and FECO (highly concentrated full plant extracts that patients use for cancer, HIV and other illnesses) — I don’t think that would be easy for rec stores to stock.”

Expansion welcomed

Store owners in Clark County say they’re willing to meet those demands.

Ramsey Hamide, owner of Main Street Marijuana, said expanding into the medical market and helping patients get the products they need is just good business.

“Just like with retail marijuana, we listen to the input of customers and seek to carry the largest selection of products we possibly can,” Hamide said. “If there is a medical marijuana-related product that our customers have a need for, we would leave no stone unturned to track down those products and keep them in stock to service those in need.”

He also said medical products coming through the I-502 system would generally be safer for patients.

“My issue with ‘medical’ marijuana is the lack of oversight,” Hamide said. “In the 502 retail system, there is an extensive list of banned chemicals that can’t be used when growing. All our product is extensively tested for contaminants, along with THC and CBD levels. … If I were a patient, I would rather go to a 502 retail store and get tested and regulated marijuana, which is much higher in quality than the supposed medical marijuana existing today.”

Officials from all the other Clark County stores — High End Market Place, The Herbery, New Vansterdam and the Cannabis Country Store — also said they’d be interested in exploring the medical market.

“It would really depend on what the reforming of the law would be, but I would absolutely be interested,” said Morgan Hutchinson, owner of High End Market Place. “That model works in Colorado. It’s really set up like a retail situation. And if you think about it, lots of medications are sold over the counter, as well as by prescription.”

Shifting into that area would require some new training for employees and probably a host of other costs, but Hutchinson said she thinks the idea is absolutely worth exploring.

“I want to be careful about it, but yes, we’d be interested,” Hutchinson said. “That said, there are still a lot of gray areas to explore.”

Source: The Columbian / Associated Press