Work in progress: Reconciling the medical and recreational marijuana markets

Julia Martinez, Contributing Writer

OLYMPIA — “Who regulates the medical market?” Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, asked at the start of a hearing last week in on the Cannabis Patient Protection Act.

Everyone in the audience who laughed at his question knew the answer: The medical market answers to no one.

Sen. Ann Rivers
Sen. Ann Rivers

In an attempt to hold the medical marijuana market up to the same safety standards as the recreational market, Sen. Ann Rivers, R –La Center, has introduced Senate Bill 5052 in the Washington State Legislature.

Currently, the medical marijuana market is not subject to any licensing, product testing, labeling or dosing.

In contrast, the recreational market is subject to all of the above and more.

Rivers said her bill is targeted at providing “safe, affordable patient access for medical marijuana.”

Those who testified at the Thursday public hearing in the Senate Health Care Committee fell into two groups: retailers and patients.

Retailers want medical market held to same safety standards

“We’ve seen testing of medicinal products revealing a troubling lack of safety precautions and a lack of information as to the contents of the majority of medicinal marijuana products sold,” Rick Garza, director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, said.

There are no guarantees for patients that what they are ingesting or inhaling is free of any harmful toxins, bacteria or mold, said Jessica Tanani, chief executive officer of Verda Bio, a small biotech company in Seattle. All cannabis sold under Initiative 502 is required to have cannabinoid and microbial testing.

The recreational market has been seeing growing competition with the medical market. Excise and sales taxes are tacked on to the price that consumers pay for recreational products. In the medical market, stores have the option on whether or not to collect the sales tax from patients.

“Until there is a single marketplace that is accountable to consumers and enforceable by law, the legal cannabis industry in Washington will be unfairly disadvantaged by following the rules while unregulated players thrive in an environment with no requirements or oversight,” said Michelle Grogan of Green America, a grower and processor based in Kelso.

Eric Cooper of Monkey Grass Farms, a grower and processor based in Wenatchee, noted that no business comes with the guarantee of success. But he added that the medical markets are not only free from any type of taxes, but more important, they’re free from having any testing done on their products whatsoever.

“How long before everyone must follow the law, not just a fraction of us?” Ian Eisenberg from Uncle Ike’s in Seattle asked.

Patients oppose taxes on their medicine

"Cannabis sativa (Köhler)" by Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834 - 1879) - (index) (image). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Cannabis sativa (Köhler)” by Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834 – 1879) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Those opposed to Senate Bill 5052 were patients who wanted to keep seeing dried flowers sold in medical shops and didn’t want to be subjected to high taxes on their medicine. Rivers’s bill eliminates dried flowers from medical stores, allowing all other products.

Gina Garcia, a medical marijuana patient, testified that dried flowers are “the basis of all of our medicine” and that without it, patients have nothing.

“The dried herb is not only the main ingredient, but it’s also a way to get a quick relief,” Garcia said.

Rivers addressed the issue of smokeable flowers in a press conference shortly after the hearing.

“That seemed to be a universal concern among the patients,” Rivers said. “We’ll be having a look at that.”

Erin Palmer, a medical marijuana patient, said there was no way she’d be able to afford a highly regulated system since she is on disability pay and relies mainly on free medication.

“My main concern is the cost,” Palmer said. “Not all patients can grow or are able to find a designated provider,” she added.

“The critical issue we’re dealing with here is the patients, the poor people and the disabled people’s right to grow versus commercial interest,” Arthur West, a concerned citizen, said. “Those two shouldn’t be mixed or combined.”

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, has also introduced a bill that would license recreational stores to sell medical products and get rid of medical stores. Some patients are opposed to the idea of going into a recreational store to get their medicine.

The Senate Health Care Committee, which Rivers was recently appointed to, will decide the fate of SB 5052. The committee has the option to pass, reject or take no action on the bill. Last year, Rivers’ SB 5887, which aimed at reconciling the medical and recreational systems, cleared the Senate but died in the House.