- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - A measure to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana system cleared the Senate Saturday as the state moves to merge that largely unregulated market with the still-developing legal recreational market.

Senate Bill 5887 passed on a 34-15 vote and now heads to the House, which passed a similar measure last month. Both chambers will now negotiate a final bill to reconcile the medical market with the recreational market approved by voters in the fall of 2012.

The changes under the bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center include reducing the amount of marijuana and the number of plants patients can possess, doing away with collective gardens and establishing a patient registry.

“The bill you have is a result of bicameral bipartisan effort,” Rivers said, calling the measure a framework. “This is the very best attempt to protect our patients and their rights while making sure we meet Initiative 502 guidelines,” which legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

At the end of 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize possession of recreational marijuana by adults 21 and older. The voters also called for the establishment of systems of state-licensed pot growers, processors and retail stores.

Sales have already begun in Colorado, but licensed stores in Washington state aren’t expected to open until this summer.

Washington has allowed the medical use of marijuana since 1998. The hundreds of dispensaries that currently exist are not regulated by the state, but they loosely operate under current state law on “collective gardens” that allows qualifying patients to pool their resources to grow, produce and deliver medical cannabis.

Lawmakers have worried that the largely unregulated medical system would undercut the taxed recreational industry established by Initiative 502. U.S. Justice Department officials have warned that the state’s medical pot status quo is untenable.

Medical marijuana patients have flocked to public hearings on the issue in both the Senate and House in recent weeks, decrying the potential changes.

Under the measure that passed Saturday, collective gardens would be eliminated on Sept. 1, 2015, meaning that unless current dispensaries receive a license from the state, they will have to close. But under the measure that passed Saturday, patients and designated providers may form cooperative marijuana-growing operations of no more than four participants.

Rivers has said she’s sympathetic to patients’ concerns, but she’s worried about what the federal government will do if the state doesn’t make the changes.

“I believe we are doing a lot for our patients in this,” Rivers said. “They were at front of mind when we were developing this bill.”

Under her measure, the amount of cannabis patients can have would be cut from 24 ounces to 3 ounces. Under the recreational law, adults are allowed to have up to an ounce. The measures also limit the number of plants patients can grow to six. Under current regulations, they can grow 15.

Rivers’ bill would allow a health professional to authorize an additional amount, but no more than eight ounces or 15 plants. Her measure would also allow additional amounts for marijuana-infused products like liquids and concentrates.

The measure permits stores to have a medical endorsement to sell medical as well as recreational marijuana and allows an option for endorsed retail stores to solely serve medical-marijuana patients. The bill requires the Liquor Control Board, which is overseeing implementation of Initiative 502, to consider the needs of patients in determining the number of retail licenses issued. Currently, the board has limited recreational retail licenses to 334 across the state, for which there are currently more than 2,000 applications.

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