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Washington Senate Approves Marijuana Bill Combining Medical and Recreational Industries

On Friday the Washington State Senate approved a bill aimed at integrating medical and recreational marijuana into a single, state-licensed industry. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center), is more restrictive than legislation introduced last month by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), a longtime supporter of medical marijuana. Like Kohl-Welles’ bill, Rivers’ would shut down the dispensaries that operate as “collective gardens” while allowing some of their owners a chance to run state-regulated marijuana stores. Unlike Kohl-Welles’ bill, Rivers’ does not allow home cultivation for recreational use, and it would impose new limits on patients’ freedom to grow their own medicine.

Patients with doctor’s recommendations currently have an affirmative defense against cultivation charges for at least 15 plants—more if they can show it is medically necessary. Rivers’ bill, S.B. 5052, would create a registry in which patients would have to enroll if they want to grow marijuana. They would be limited to six plants unless a health professional certified that they needed more. Under Kohl-Welles’ bill, by contrast, all adults 21 or older would have been allowed to grow up to six plants, while patients who obtained a “medical marijuana waiver” would have been allowed to grow up to 15.

Patients in the registry created by S.B. 5052 would be allowed to possess three times as much marijuana as recreational consumers: up to three ounces of buds, 48 ounces of marijuana-infused foods, 21 ounces of liquid, and 21 grams of concentrates. Under current law, patients may possess up to 24 ounces of marijuana. Registration would exempt patients from sales tax (but not the state’s hefty marijuana-specific taxes) on cannabis purchased from retailers with “medical marijuana endorsements.”

Under Rivers’ bill, the Washington State Liquor Control Board, renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Board, would issue those endorsements to retailers who want to specialize in serving patients. To accommodate the influx of patients, the board would raise the number of retailer licenses (currently limited to 334) and open a new, merit-based licensing process that would be open to current dispensary operators who have been collecting sales taxes and otherwise striving to comply with state and local law. Patients who do not live near a state-licensed store would be allowed to form “cooperatives” that would be limited to four patients growing no more than 60 plants and could not be located within 15 miles of a regulated retailer.

The bill, which aims to reduce competition with state-licensed marijuana merchants and raise the share of transactions subject to taxes, will now be considered by the state House of Representatives. “The Senate sent a strong and clear message to the people of this state today that we’re taking this issue seriously and we’re going to keep working on it for the safety of our patients and the safety of our children,” Rivers told the Associated Press. “There’s tremendous will to get this done. We have got to get rid of the gray and black market.”

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