Did Medical Marijuana Doom Itself?

A lack of regulation plus a lack of cohesion was a lethal cocktail for Washington's medical marijuana community.

Back in 2010, a group of medical marijuana patients and growers in Washington state got together and formed a group called the Coalition for Cannabis Standards & Ethics*. Among other things, the group established a code of conduct that all members agreed to follow—akin to best practices lists adopted by more established professions like realty and banking. The members of the coalition agreed to pay taxes, follow disability access laws, and try to maintain good relationships with their neighbors.

As Jeremy Kaufman, who runs the Seattle medical marijuana dispensery and R&D firm Center for Palliative Care, recalls, membership to the group passed 100 soon after it started—no small feat in his view, given that the code of ethics required medical cannabis businesses to pay taxes, thus admitting to the federal government that they were making money selling a Schedule 1 narcotic.

Fast-forward to today, and that code of ethics has been overwhelmed by Washington’s sprawling medical cannabis industry. Following the legislative session of 2011, the state of Washington essentially set a policy of not having a policy for medical marijuana. What followed was a Wild West rush of pot dealers who played fast and loose with the rules in search of an easy buck, all under the banner of medical marijuana.

Naturally, the industry was beset by PR disaster after PR disaster: too-easy access to green cards that made the public wonder if it was really even patients who were being served, and plenty of profiteers leading to suspicion that medical marijuana was just a new name for illicit drug dealing. As people learned more about the medical qualities of cannabis, questions emerged over how well dispeneries in Washington served those needs. On the ground, many people suddenly found their neighborhood occupied by a medical cannabis storefront that added an indelible air of seediness to their block.

For Kaufman, it was a depressing turn of events. Like many in the industry, he still hasn’t forgiven Gov. Christine Gregoire for vetoing a major bill in 2011 that aimed to bring more regulation to businesses like his. With that veto, “the people were left with their proverbial peckers in the wind,” he says. He’s not one to sugarcoat what transpired in the three years afterward.

“There was a massive amount of exploitation. Like humans do, there were people who looked to make a profit from a loophole. Black market drug dealers have come in and done some terrible things in the absence of regulation.

“The people who got shoved under the bus were the therapeutic users of cannabis.”

Through it all, CCSE stayed in operation, holding members to the code of conduct. But that story was washed out by the torrent of bad press coming from the unregulated medical marijuana industry. The narrative had been lost.

It’s in this context that Kaufman gave his support to SB 5052, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed on Friday. The bill marks the end of medical marijuana as Washington knows it, though it gives access points till July 1, 2016, to shut down.

Kaufman says the bill is the best chance for medical marijuana to regain credibility in Washington, and he has little sympathy for those who say it marks an end to medical cannabis in the state.

“Anyone who uses marijuana for therapy, that’s medical cannabis. That’s not going away," he says. "The people who are yelling about it are the people who have paid rent and put food in the mouth without having to pay taxes. That way of life is over." (It should be said here that medical cannabis owners themselves—the legitimate ones, anyway—were begging for regulations in Olympia that would have allowed them to pay taxes and get registered. More from them in a moment).

The medical marijuana community has lots of legitimate gripes about 5052, the most pertinent of which were recently noted by our weed columnist Michael Stusser. Patients would have to register with the state, thus putting themselves on a government database self-identifying as a user of a federally prohibited drug. And there certainly will be fewer places to get pot, given that there are now hundreds of dispenseries in Washington. That number is going to get a lot smaller.

But even those who are opposed to 5052 admit that the medical marijuana community did a poor job managing its perception with the public these last few years.

Anthony Martinelli, communications director for the medical marijuana group Sensible Washington, acknowledges that there was “not as good of an effort as there could have been to show how legitimate the medical cannabis community can be.”

That's telling. Central to all successful efforts to legalize marijuana has been the ability to convey a postive—almost conservative—image to the public (as conveyed in Nina Shapiro's excellent piece on pot-mama Allison Holcomb.)

Martinelli also noted that the community did a poor job presenting a united front in Olympia against 5052 and in favor of the regulation bills they supported.

“In the community, we’re not as tight-knit as we could be," he says. "Our messaging isn’t as clear as it could be. There was a lot of complacency. Many of the dispensaries didn’t think something like this (5052) would get through. Now that they have a year to shut down, it’s completely different. As an organization, as soon as the governor signed it, we’ve gotten 10-fold response. They ask, ‘What can we do? What can we do?’ It’s certainly harder now that it’s signed.” (Martinelli went on to say that Sensible Washington is pursuing legal means to challenge the law.)

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the 2011 legislation ultimately vetoed by Gregorie and the lawmaker who has perhaps invested the most time of anyone in Olympia to medical marijuana, gave a similar assessment.

"It's important to understand that through all the years I worked on this, there's not been a single medical marijuana community," she says. "It's been very divisive. It's difficult to make a comment about 'the medical marijuana community.' Because they are not all together. Even those who are good actors aren't all together."

Kohl-Welles introduced her own medical marijuana regulation measure this session, aspects of which were folded into 5052. Still, Kohl-Welles voted against 5052 after deciding it did not serve patients.

Martinelli wasn’t completely self-flagellating in his assessment of his group’s legislative defeat this year. He notes that there is a ton of money behind the recreational marijuana industry, and that in politics, money talks. He also argues, probably rightly so, that many lawmakers are simply uneducated about the medical marijuana community and why the recreational system doesn’t work for patients.

And, of course, he says the government is as responsible as anyone else for the mess that the medical marijuana industry became for lack of regulation over that last few years. That, no doubt, is correct. But in its way, that fact speaks to the truth of the death of medical marijuana in Washington state: Set up for failure though it was, it was ultimately a state-assisted suicide.


*Medical marijuana activist Philip Dawdy disputes the founding date claimed by CCSE on their website. He says the group Washington Cannabis Association was begun in 2010. After that group dissolved, it formed "the nucleus" of the newly formed CCSE in 2011.

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