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Sen. Kohl-Welles Wants to Lift Cap on Pot Stores, Merge Medical Marijuana into I-502 System

Seattle State Sen. Jeane Kohl-Welles cues up omnibus pot bill

By Casey Jaywork December 11, 2014

If State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36, Ballard, Queen Anne) gets her way, Washington pot laws are about to get a little less weird.

Sen. Kohl-Welles says she plans to push legislation during the upcoming session to bring medical marijuana out of its current legal limbo into the existing recreation system---hopefully without forcing pot patients to pay the astronomical prices that state-licensed recreational sellers charge. Her proposal would also allow home growing, simplify pot’s tax structure, and remove the cap on the total number of pot stores, among other tweaks.

“Right now we have a legal system in place for recreational use,” says Kohl-Welles, “but we have really no legal system for medical marijuana growing, processing, and selling. “So we’re left in a bit of a mess.”

Kohl-Welles is still hammering out the details of the complicated legislation (after all, it wouldn’t be a Washington state pot law if you could summarize it in one sentence), but here are the broad strokes:

 In stores:

The 334 cap on the number of pot stores would be removed, and store employees would be trained by the Department of Health (DOH) about marijuana products. The Liquor Control Board would still regulate the stores themselves.

Medical cannabis would be subsumed into the I-502 regulatory structure for retail stores. No more legally-ambiguous dispensaries, no more cash “donations.” Existing dispensaries could be grandfathered into the I-502 stores.

By increasing the supply of legitimate marijuana, users will have less incentive to buy pot on the street,  Kohl-Welles says.

No more doctors’ authorizations. Instead, commercial pot would come in two tiers: High-THC (which gets you stoned) vs. high-CBD (which treats your ailments). Recreation-friendly high-THC pot would be heavily taxed, while medicine-centered high-CBD pot would be available tax-free.

Patients who need high-THC cannabis (for cancer, for example) could get a tax exemption through DOH, which would confirm with their doctor that they have an authorized condition. (Sen. Kohl-Welles also wants to add PTSD to the list of authorized conditions.)

Currently, commercial marijuana is taxed thrice: during production, during refinement, and at sale. Kohl-Welles wants to collapse this into one tax at the point of sale, and fiddle with the tax’s classification so that businesses can deduct it from their federal taxes.

Collective gardens will either get licensed through the Liquor Control Board or hang up their spurs.

At home:

Anyone over 21 could grow up to six pot plants at home (one grow per residence), keep up to eight ounces of that pot, and transport and/or share up to one ounce. (Colorado already allows home-grows.)

Pot delivery services would become licensed and regulated.

 18-20 year old patients and the parents of minor patients could get a DOH waiver to grow and/or buy medical pot.

In the town:

Local governments can bar pot retailers from setting up shop within their jurisdictions. And any towns that do nix cannabis stores will forfeit state money produced by taxes on pot sales.

“What I’ve been trying to do,” says Kohl-Welles, “is find a way that health care authorizations would become a moot point. My proposal is designed to find a way to phase out the whole medical system so that it’s just a straight, clean system for individuals to access marijuana, whether they’re using it for recreational or medical purposes.”

Part of the logic behind Kohl-Welles’ proposal is to limit abuse---for instance, use by minors---by coaxing users into state-regulated stores. Hence her plan to remove the current cap on marijuana stores: By increasing the supply of legitimate marijuana, users will have less incentive to buy pot on the street. (By contrast, there is currently no cap on the number of liquor stores in the state.)

While Kohl-Welles is at pains to keep marijuana patients from losing access to their medicine, some advocates have expressed concern about any regulation that puts medical marijuana under the umbrella of retail marijuana. The latter was designed to generate tax revenue and stamp out abuse, says Kari Boiter of Americans for Safe Access, and not to facilitate a public health measure.

“We certainly don’t want the budget to be balanced on the backs of sick patients,” she says.

“The general move by pretty much every legislative proposal,” Boiter adds, “is to put patients into the 502 program, and to have all of the business exist within that regulatory framework. And if that is going to happen, then some very significant changes need to be made.”

“We certainly don’t want the budget to be balanced on the backs of sick patients."—Kari Boiter with Americans for Safe Access.

Boiter is skeptical of any scheme that requires patients to get special dispensation via DOH, which she fears will prioritize enforcement over access. Folks at DoH, she says, “haven’t been receptive to patients’ needs.”

“If the only way that patients can get access is through a waiver, then we need to make sure that patients can get access [to that waiver],” says Boiter. She worries that the DoH will put patient applications---for tax-exempt high-THC pot, or authorization to grow more than six plants at home, for example---on the back burner, effectively blocking patients from receiving care. “This isn’t fun and games for us,” she adds. “This is a life and death struggle…The last thing we need is for it to be harder to get our medicine.”

For her part, Sen. Kohl-Welles says she’s confident that DoH won’t drag its feet when processing marijuana patients. “The Department of Health would get the application,” she says, “and they would contact the person’s health care professional verifying that this person is a patient and, yes, is being treated for cancer, for example.

“The Department of Health likes this approach,” she adds.

Kohl-Welles’ proposal for medical marijuana regulation isn’t the only one on the table. Last session Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18, Ridgefield) pushed for higher taxes and tighter regulation of medical pot. Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-23, Bainbridge Island) has already pre-filed her own legislation for January’s upcoming legislative session.


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