The Columbian / Associated Press

Legislature approves overhaul of medical marijuana market

OLYMPIA — The Washington Legislature on Tuesday approved an overhaul of the state’s medical marijuana market, sending to Gov. Jay Inslee a bill that seeks to eliminate unregulated dispensary sales now that the state’s recreational market is in place.

The Senate concurred with changes made to the bill in the House last week, and then voted 41-8 to pass it out of the chamber on to the governor for his expected signature.

After the vote, the bill’s sponsor said that state could no longer wait to reconcile the medical and recreational markets.

“The reality is that we have a thriving illicit market,” said Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center. “It’s essential that we shut that down. But it was also essential that our patients had a clean supply and an adequate supply.”

Among its many provisions, Senate Bill 5052 would create a database of patients. Changes made in the House included making voluntary the patient registry that was mandatory under the original Senate version. However, unregistered patients wouldn’t be allowed to possess the same amounts of marijuana or enjoy similar tax breaks that registered patients would.

Under the measure, patients who are entered into the database and hold an authorization card will be allowed to possess three times as much marijuana as is allowed under the recreational law: 3 ounces dry, 48 ounces of marijuana-infused solids, 216 ounces liquid and 21 grams of concentrates. Such a patient could also grow up to six plants at home, unless authorized to receive more by a health professional.

For someone who doesn’t get an authorization card but is considered a qualified patient, the limit is the same as the recreational limit of one ounce. However, such a patient would be allowed to grow up to four plants and possess up to six ounces from those plants.

The passage of Initiative 502 in 2012 allowed the sale of marijuana to adults for recreational use at licensed stores, which started opening last summer. Recreational businesses have complained that they’re being squeezed by medical dispensaries that have proliferated in many parts of the state, providing lesser- or untaxed alternatives to licensed recreational stores.

Senate Bill 5052 would crack down on collective gardens, eliminating the current collective garden structure starting July 1, 2016, but allowing four-patient “cooperatives.” The cooperatives would be limited to a maximum of 60 plants, and the location of the collective would have to be registered with the state, and couldn’t be within one mile of a licensed pot retailer.

But it would also provide an avenue for existing collective gardens to stay in business, by requiring the state Liquor Control Board — which would be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Board — to adopt a merit-based system for granting marijuana licenses. Among the factors that could be considered are whether the applicant previously operated a collective garden, had a business license or paid business taxes.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle said that while she agreed that there needed to be an alignment of the two systems, she was voting no “because I need to make that point for the patients.”

“I’m worried about the patients who are dependent upon the places that they know well,” she said.

Another bill passed by the House last week that is awaiting action in the Senate calls for eliminating the three-tier tax structure voters approved in Initiative 502 and replacing it with a single excise tax of 30 percent at the point of sale that everyone would have to pay, both patients and recreational users. However, under that bill, patients who are in the registry and have an authorization card would be exempt from additional sales tax on their purchases.