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The Death of Medical Marijuana?

Washington state patients prepare to lose long-held rights

By June H. Kim

Published March 12, 2014

The Seattle Seahawks may have embarrassed the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, but Colorado is currently smoking Washington State in the inaugural Marijuana Legalization Bowl. In a natural experiment comparing two distinct policy approaches to legalization, legislators in the Evergreen State have metaphorically botched the snap. While Colorado has already begun reaping tax revenues upwards of $184 million from retail sales, Washington State has struggled, predictably, in facilitating a private market for recreational marijuana.

While dispensaries in Denver simply flipped their signs to become retail stores earlier this year, an entire “recreational” market has yet to be created in Washington state. This is largely due to the language of Washington’s voter-passed initiative, I-502, which requires separate tiers for producers, processors, and retailers of marijuana. As most medical marijuana dispensaries encompass all levels, an entirely new system had to be created. Essentially, this is akin to opening up a state-run liquor store across the street from a speakeasy… immediately after Prohibition.

Unfortunately, this means that a medical marijuana system that has served patients since 1998 is currently drawing the ire of state regulators. In a harbinger of things to come, State Representative Chris Hurst, a Democrat from the 31st District, ominously called the medical marijuana industry a sham last year. His solution: “[M]ake examples of five or six people and the entire industry collapses almost immediately.”

Washington state legislators went one step further last month by passing House Bill 2149, effectively eliminating medical marijuana dispensaries and severely diminishing long-held patient rights. While HB 2149 appears to have died in Washington’s state Senate Committee, a similar and less restrictive bill, SB 5887, passed the Senate this week.

Collective gardens, which pool resources in cultivating marijuana plants, will also be eradicated. Patients can still grow their own marijuana but are only allowed six plants (down from 15), and only three of these plants can be flowering at any one time. With an average yield of an ounce per plant and a lifecycle of six months, it is not clear how patients would even be able to surpass the maximum three ounces they are now allowed to possess (down from 24)–without becoming state customers. By design, perhaps?

Meanwhile in Denver, growers of a strain of marijuana high in cannabidiol (CBD) have scored a touchdown with parents of children with Dravet syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy. CBD has been known for years to be effective in the management of pain, and is now the focus of an FDA approved clinical trial for pediatric epilepsy. This particular strain, dubbed Charlotte’s Web, is so low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that it was originally named “Hippie’s Disappointment”.

In a system designed to cater to recreational users, will the state co-op’s risk carrying similar disappointments?

Edited by Dana March and Elaine Meyer

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.