A Tale of Two Systems: Recreational & Medical Cannabis in Washington State

The deadline for submitting applications to grow, produce and/or sell marijuana in Washington has passed and the state liquor control board (WSLCB) has reported receiving over 2,500 applications. Out of those applications no more than 334 retail stores would be allowed statewide, while restrictions on growers will center around a cap on the number of square feet used to grow and produce marijuana products.

With retail outlets slated to start to open in May or June of this year, questions about the necessity of medical dispensaries, which are considered parallel distribution networks, have arisen. Specifically, why should the state continue to support a largely unregulated and tax free medicinal market when another marketplace – that allows the state more regulatory controls, along with the ability to levy taxes – is providing a similar service.

Indeed, a state committee has recommended that the state shut down medical dispensaries and restrict access for patients. These restrictions would ban patients from growing their own marijuana and start to pay taxes on their medical purchases. Medicinal patients would also have to join a patient registry and doctors would be discouraged from primarily providing services to medicinal patients. Finally, the legal possession limit for medicinal patients would be severely restricted. If the recommendation is followed, dispensaries would begin to shut down in 2015.

Another factor in this decision is the federal government, which still considers marijuana as an illegal drug. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has stated they won’t interfere in states where marijuana is legal, except in certain circumstances, most particularly in those where they consider the industry to lack adequate regulation. Eliminating medicinal dispensaries would go a long way towards mollifying federal regulators.

Of course, supporters of the medicinal system in are against these changes. For one, the medicinal system in Washington is working and has been for 15 years. Other concerns center around access to adequate quantities and powerful enough strains, some of which can be catered to specific patient needs.

However, it looks bad for dispensaries in Washington. The lack of regulation and tax income, coupled with the fact that patients will still have access to marijuana, likely makes a strong argument against dispensaries in the minds of state legislators. If the state decides to do away with the medicinal system, Washington dispensaries would be shuttered in favor of retail outlets, leaving those who have invested time and money in the medicinal market out of business.



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