OLYMPIA, Wash. — Dozens of marijuana plants await harvest at a production site for "Loaded Soda," an Olympia-based business that provides marijuana-infused sodas, vitamin waters and other products to more than 400 medical marijuana collectives throughout the state.
Owner Dave Kois stands in the middle of the three-foot plants, discussing the different strains of marijuana that he's growing, as well as his thoughts on efforts by the state to regulate the medical market that he currently caters to. Two bills working their way through the Legislature seek to reconcile the medical market with the new recreational market approved by voters in the fall of 2012.
Lawmakers in Olympia have worried that the largely unregulated medical system would undercut the taxed, recreational industry, and U.S. Justice Department officials have warned that the state's medical marijuana status quo is untenable.
"It's about money for the state," said Kois, who grows marijuana that has high levels of a compound known as CBD and is low in THC, the chemical that causes users to get high. "They see medical as a threat to their tax money on the recreational side. I understand that. But I think that the two should be regulated separately. They're two separate systems and they should stay that way."
The state has allowed medical use of marijuana since 1998. The hundreds of dispensaries that currently exist statewide are not regulated by the state, but loosely operate under current state law language on "collective gardens" that allows qualifying patients to pool their resources to grow, produce and deliver medical cannabis. Under the measures being considered, collective gardens would be eliminated, meaning that unless current dispensaries receive a license from the state, they will have to close.
In 2011, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of a bill that sought to regulate the state's medical marijuana system, expressing concerns about possible prosecution of state workers under federal law. At the end of 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize possession of recreational marijuana by adults 21 and older. The votes also called for 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.
Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center who is sponsoring one of the measures being considered by the Legislature, calls the state's current medical marijuana system "the Wild West."
"Some regulation in this area would do us good," she said. "It's the only way to ensure that the feds are going to keep their noses out of our business."
Kois, himself a medical marijuana patient who has been using the low-THC products that he makes in order to help treat his Crohn's disease, has applied for a producer license from the state. He said he plans to move his grow into a 21,000-square-foot space in Centralia to accommodate the increased demand that will come from the recreational market, as well as the need to start growing high-THC plants to grow alongside the medical-only ones he grows now. Currently, he has two lines of products, including chocolates, sodas and hard candies: blue labels have a high CBD content; red labels indicate high-THC marijuana, which Kois currently buys from other growers to produce.
"I've seen the writing on the wall for over a year," he said.
Rivers' medical marijuana measure is awaiting a vote in the Senate Ways & Means Committee. Her bill is similar to a House bill that has already passed that chamber and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.
Both bills look to reduce the amount of marijuana and number of plants patients can possess, and would do away with collective gardens by the middle of next year. They would also establish a patient registry that would provide medical marijuana patients with an authorization card that would grant them a sales tax break on medical marijuana purchased at authorized stores. Both allow stores to have a medical endorsement to sell medical along with recreational marijuana and also allow an option for endorsed retail stores to solely serve medical marijuana patients. Rivers' bill requires the Liquor Control Board, which is overseeing implementation of I-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.
Medical marijuana patients flocked to a series of public hearings in both the Senate and House in recent weeks, decrying the potential changes.
Christine Emineth's 5-year-old daughter, Trystyn, suffers from a form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome that required nearly two dozen pills a day to control. She started using a low-THC medical marijuana-infused coconut oil for her daughter about three months ago, and says it's made such a difference she's been able to go off of one of her medications. Emineth said they currently have a designated grower who gives her daughter the medicine for free, and she worries about the prices, as well as the supply of low-THC marijuana, if the medical market is integrated with the recreational one.
"I don't think it's going to be affordable for any family that has medical issues," she said.
Current dispensary owners say they're concerned that recreational marijuana users will get top preference and medical patients will be left scrambling.
"Nobody is going to be required to have a medical endorsement," said Patrick Seifert, who runs Rainier Xpress in downtown Olympia, where he said about a third of his approximately 4,000 patients are veterans. "Patients are going to have to look on a map to find one. What if a medical endorsement isn't in their town?"
In December, the Liquor Control Board gave its final recommendations to the Legislature about how it believes the medical system can be brought under the umbrella of the new law.
Both the House and Senate measures incorporate many of those suggestions, including cutting how much cannabis patients can have 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. However, the House measure sponsored by Democratic Rep. Eileen Cody allows a health care professional to authorize an unlimited amount more if deemed necessary. The Senate measure, sponsored by Rivers, 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.
Steve Mohr, who runs Olympia Alternative Medicine in Olympia, said his hope is that lawmakers revisit the entire issue of combining the markets.
"We want to be regulated, but the thing is we don't want to disappear, and that is what's on the table right now," said Mohr. Neither Mohr nor Seifert applied for retail licenses, and would have to close under the current proposals.
Rivers says she is sympathetic. She notes her late father used medical marijuana to help deal with the severe nausea that was a result of cancer, and that her brother used it while recovering from an accident.
But she said that if the state doesn't do something, both the medical and recreational systems could be compromised.
"What I'm afraid of, is what the feds will do," she said.