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2 key senators are optimistic about new pot legislation

The Legislative Building of the Washington State Capitol, Olympia.

January 21, 2015 - 11:26 am

By John Stang.

Two influential state senators expressed optimism Tuesday about achieving a merger of the state’s medical marijuana and recreational pot systems.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, spelled out details of what she plans to put into her soon-to-be-filed marijuana bill, describing it as complementary to an existing bill by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

Kohl-Welles and Rivers were optimistic about successfully combining their efforts. Last year, Rivers won Senate approval of a bipartisan pot bill, which included heavy input from Kohl-Welles. But the measure then died in the Democratic-controlled House over disputes on how revenue from recreational marijuana taxes would be distributed.

While federal authorities have tolerated the state’s legalization of marijuana, they are believed to be watching to see how carefully the overall distribution of pot is regulated. Both bills are prompted by Washington’s having few regulations governing medical marijuana, while a much stricter system is in place for recreational marijuana. Concerns have been cited about many medical marijuana shops being deliberately lax in filtering questionable medical patients from legitimate medical-pot patients. Plus, the quality of medical pot is not as regulated as the quality of recreational marijuana.

Rivers’ new bill is scheduled for a public hearing before the Senate Health Care Committee at 10 a.m. Thursday in Olympia. It would forbid medical marijuana dispensaries from selling dried marijuana because of smoking’s effect on sick people, but it would allow edibles and concentrates for patients. And it would require state testing and regulation of the potency of medical marijuana.

Rivers’ bill would keep medical marijuana shops open with patients having three options. They could go to the medical shops; they could shop at a recreational-marijuana outlet that had earned a state endorsement to sell and provide counseling for medical marijuana; or they could go to any licensed recreational-pot store and essentially take pot luck in picking a strain of marijuana without counseling.

Rivers and Kohl-Welles propose combining the medical and recreational pot systems under the Washington Liquor Control Board, which would be renamed the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Kohl-Welles said her bill and Rivers’ have much in common, but that her proposal tackles some matters not mentioned in Rivers’ legislation. Rivers was familiar with what Kohl-Welles has been contemplating, but had not read details of the proposal.

Unlike Rivers’ plan, Kohl-Welles’ proposed bill would include creating a single license aimed at recreational shops, which then could get state designations to handle medical marijuana as well. While Rivers proposes retaining purely medical marijuana shops, Kohl-Welles’ plan calls for gradually phasing them out. Both propose phasing out collective gardens.

Kohl-Welles’ proposed bill would call for the state to dramatically increase the number of recreational shop licenses — currently several dozen — to a yet-to-be-determined figure, with a new eligibility to get state endorsements to handle medical marijuana. The combined recreational-medical shops would sell pot with the potencies of the active ingredients THC and CBD earmarked for medical patients. The state would train store employees on dealing with both recreational and medical marijuana.

Both bills would have some type of registry-style list of medical-marijuana patients and providers. Rivers said that of the 22 states that have legalized medical marijuana, Washington is the only one without a registry. Kohl-Welles proposes limiting a registry to solely a patient’s name and a provider’s name. Both proposals call for a patient to receive a state card designating the person as eligible for medical marijuana. Under Kohl-Welles’ plan, card-carrying medical marijuana patients would become exempt from the 25 percent state sales tax on the pot.

With Kohl-Welle’s proposal, any adult 21 or older can grow up to six pot plants in his or her own home. Patients with appropriate medical waivers would be allowed to grow more than six plants if needed. Both bills would have the state set standards for medical marijuana that is sold in stores.

Kohl-Welles’ bill would allow local governments to ban or delay marijuana businesses in their jurisdictions — as long as such a ban or any moratorium is approved by a public referendum. Her proposed legislation would allow counties and cities to shrink– via their zoning regulations — the 1,000-foot buffer between a marijuana shop and recreational centers, public park, transit stations, child care centers, libraries and game arcades. Local governments would be allowed to zoning buffers around churches. The 1,000-foot buffer around schools remains intact.

By laying out her goals now, Kohl-Welles is helping to set the stage for Thursday’s hearing, where a large turnout is expected. If the Senate can approve a bipartisan bill relatively early in the year, it might increase the chances for winning final agreement from the House and Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature on a new law.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.