The American states of Washington and Colorado made international news last November, when voters from both states passed initiatives to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational use. Voters had previously voted for laws protecting cannabis use for qualified medical patients, but the support for all-out legalization seems to be fading amongst figures in the medical community.
In a surprising turn of events, many medical marijuana patients have spoken out publicly against the legalization of cannabis for recreational use. Many of the same people who spent decades crusading for legalization have now turned against it. Citing concern with the new law’s taxes and regulations, groups have popped up to attempt to protect Washington’s medical marijuana law, and keep it completely separate from the state’s new law. Their opponents say that medical patients have a curb on a black market, and a few are profiting from loopholes in the medical cannabis laws.
Many advocates for cannabis legalization have fought for years to see it become a reality. When Washington legalized marijuana for medical use, it was seen by most in pro-cannabis camps as a major victory. Since then, numerous medical marijuana storefronts have sprung up all over the state, calling themselves “collectives” or “co-ops”. While the dispensaries are explicitly prohibited in the language of the state’s medical marijuana law, most of these storefronts operate in the same fashion. It has become a lucrative market for co-op owners, as well as farmers and managers of collective gardens, seeking to exchange their crops for donations instead of selling it outright.
In Washington state, legalization went into effect on December 6th, after Initiative 502 passed by a popular vote a month before. Anyone over the age of 21 is now allowed to carry up to one ounce of dried cannabis in the state. Over the course of a year, the Washington State Liquor Control Board was charged with the task of drafting the rules for a retail system, in which taxes up to 25 percent were to be levied. Also, growers, retailers, and distributors would need be licensed by the state to lawfully carry out their business activities.
And it’s exactly these taxes and licenses that have the medical marijuana crowd up in arms over the passing of Initiative 502 (I-520).
Pat Hynes, who is a part-owner of Professional Patient Co-op located in Seattle’s Fremont neighbourhood, said his concerns mostly lie with the needs of medical patients. “I have a lot of people coming into our shop who are sick. They are in pain. And they need medicine. Many can’t afford to pay for their medication as it is. How are they supposed to be able to afford it when an extra 25-50% tax is put on top of it?” he said. Hynes regularly gives medicine to lower-income patients for free, citing his concern for the well-being of his patients.
Another group majorly concerned with the Liquor Board’s incoming regulations are medical marijuana growers. Many growers are concerned that big business will infiltrate their market and run them out of the game altogether. Among the corporations rumoured to be lobbying in Olympia are familiar names such as brewers AB InBev and tobacco giants Phillip Morris.
Since the passing of I-502, many growers have come public with their crops after growing as outlaws for years. Many have been perfecting their techniques for decades, leading to product with as high of quality as anywhere in the world. With increased regulation by the state, many fear the level of quality and potency achieved by these small-time growers will be eradicated as giant marijuana farms used to feed state-owned storefronts could become the new reality. If that system were to become the new norm, priorities could shift from quality to quantity.
One grower, Gary Cline, says he has no chance of keeping up if corporate interests are put before those of individuals and small growers. “I’m not against legalization, but I definitely think the laws could be written better,” he said. “If the state decides to give out licenses, and they cost $500,000… Guess who would be getting them? Not me. Not anyone I know. It’s going to be giant companies who only have an interest in turning profit and getting the highest yields out of every crop possible. That’s where you lose the quality.” Currently the application fee is only $250 with a $1000 renewal fee.
Pat Hynes agrees with Cline about the laws, saying that while Initiative 502 is a step in the right direction, he doesn’t think it will work out for the best. “The way this law is set up, it doesn’t get rid of the black market. The prices will shoot through the roof, and people will continue to sell on the streets to get a cheaper product. I know that this is a new thing. Nobody has had a law like this before, and there is no roadmap. Nobody knows what they’re doing. That’s both exciting, and scary. Especially for someone in my position,” he added.
Some patients have a more optimistic approach to the new laws. One medical patient, Chris St. Evers, said “I hear everybody complaining about these new laws, about how the prices are going up and everything. But I’ve got to say, who cares? Ten years ago we would all be going to jail. And now we’re not. It’s progress.”
It is progress, and not everyone is going to agree on the correct route to get to a solution.
There is still interest from lawyers, law enforcement, and special interest groups in seeing how the new laws are implemented and what is still considered a crime. That is one more thing that has people worried. One major fear for medical patients is whether or not they can be charged with a driving under the influence after failing a blood test, as THC can stay in a person’s bloodstream for up to a month.
It is unclear just how the citizens of Washington will sort out and efficiently put into place its new marijuana legalization legislation. There are also uncertainties as to how the federal government will react, as several former DEA officials have urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to file suit against Washington and Colorado for passing legislation that conflicts with federal law. One thing that is for sure is that there is definitely no road map. Washington is treading a new path, and there will be bumps in the road. But if they are able to make it work, other states can use Washington as an example.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work, but it will. It has to,” said Gary Cline. “We’ve seen that prohibition is a joke. We’re lucky here in Washington to be able to take the first attempts at taking it down.”