By Jonathan Martin – The state House passed a sweeping expansion of the state’s medical marijuana law Monday, making it increasingly likely that Washington soon will legalize dispensaries and commercial pot growers while shielding patients from arrest and prosecution.
A comprehensive overhaul of the state’s medical-marijuana law passed the state House on Monday afternoon, making it increasingly likely that the state would for the first time legalize dispensaries and growers while providing patients with new protections from arrest and prosecution.
The bill now bounces back to the Senate, which passed a slightly different version in March. Gov. Chris Gregoire said she still was considering the issue. “At this point, I have concerns about it,” she said.
Police, municipal governments and patient advocates have pressed the Legislature to fix vague elements in the 1998 citizens initiative that legalized medical marijuana. In the absence of clarity, more than 100 medical marijuana dispensaries have opened statewide under questionable legal status, concerning police.
The resulting bill, SB 5073, is the biggest overhaul since 1998. During debate on the House floor Monday, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, recalled a relative whose end-of-life suffering was eased by medical marijuana. “We owe it to this state to be compassionate in these times,” she said.
A parade of Republican lawmakers spoke in opposition, many saying the bill would expand marijuana access to children. The GOP failed with amendments that would have required dispensaries to keep 1,000 feet from schools and to ban qualified patients from growing marijuana themselves.
“It’s sad we’re moving in this direction,” said Rep. Jim McCune, R-Graham. “I think of the safety of citizens of the state of Washington as we are moving another mind-altering drug into the system.”
The House passed several changes sought by law enforcement, which firmly opposes legalized dispensaries.
Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, said the changes — which restored some police authority stripped out in earlier versions — convinced him to support the bill. “I think this is a better system than we have now,” said Hurst, a former narcotics detective.
Under the new licensing scheme, dispensaries, growers and processors of cannabis-infused foods would pay sales and business taxes, producing an estimated $920,000 in state and local revenues in 2012, and $6 million by 2017.
A fiscal analysis of the bill by the Department of Revenue estimates that 8,660 medical-marijuana users currently spend $87 million on cannabis. But if the number of patients rises as it did in Colorado after dispensaries were legalized, the medical-marijuana market in Washington is potentially worth $1.2 billion — second only to apples as an agricultural product.
The Department of Revenue analysis assumes that, because of compliance issues, only a small portion of sales taxes — 13 percent in the first year — would be collected if dispensaries become legal. If all the taxes were collected, total revenue eventually could top $100 million, said Mike Gowrylow, a department spokesman.
“We really honestly don’t know how much is going on in Washington,” he said. “It’s basically extrapolating from other states.”
Key provisions of the complex bill remain unclear, including how new licenses for dispensaries, growers and food processors would be allocated. The Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture would have until January 2013 to define those details. Until then, currently operating dispensaries would have an affirmative defense if prosecuted.
Medical-marijuana entrepreneurs, however, already are looking forward. The Department of Health has received 11 “letters of intent” from people interested in dispensary licenses, spokesman Donn Moyer said. The Department of Agriculture has received at least three letters inquiring about grower permits.
And medical-marijuana companies are rushing to incorporate with the secretary of state, seeking to beat the May 1 deadline by which future license-holders must be registered as an entity. At least two dozen nonprofit and for-profit groups have incorporated recently with “marijuana” or “cannabis” in their titles, including “Cannabis Oasis” and “Pappy’s Medical Marijuana LLC.”
“I’m nervously optimistic,” said Philip Dawdy, spokesman for the Washington Cannabis Association, a newly formed medical-marijuana trade group, which hired a lobbyist this year.
Senate lawmakers will have to work through several changes. The House version, for example, sets a quota of one dispensary per 20,000 residents, resulting in at least 93 storefronts in King County. The two versions also differ on the allowable size of gardens for patients who band together to grow pot collectively.
Both versions seek tighter regulation of medical clinics that specialize in authorizing medical marijuana for patients. Under the House bill, clinics would be prohibited from a practice that focused solely on marijuana authorizations, and banned payments to or from dispensaries or growers.
The bill’s champion, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said it would expand access for patients while providing a “bright line” for law enforcement.
If differences can be worked out with the Senate, “It’ll be the strongest medical-marijuana protection in the country,” she said.
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