Next week, potheads everywhere will ring in another 4/20, the annual celebration of cannabis culture.
But things won’t be too festive in Washington for medical-marijuana patients. With dozens of marijuana dispensaries shut down since July of last year in Seattle and dozens more slated for closure, medical marijuana as Washington has known it since 1998 is, like a well smoked bowl, all but cashed.
As of July 1st, the recreational marijuana system voters approved via I-502 in 2012 will constitute the entirety of Washington’s legal pot market. Medical pot will exist legally only as a sub-market within the recreational pot market, despite attempts by medical marijuana advocates over the past three years to preserve an independent medical market. As David Mendoza, Mayor Ed Murray’s pot czar, puts it, “The collective garden goes away July 1…[They] are no longer even an affirmative defense. They are outright not allowed.”
Credit, if that’s the word, goes to Senate Bill 5052—the “Cannabis Patient Protection Act” (CaPPA), which became law one year ago. The CaPPA, and its sister bill House Bill 2136, essentially roll dispensaries into the I-502 system. The name is somewhat Orwellian, since many patients see CaPPA as harmful to cannabis patients’ health because it lowers the quantity and potency of medicine that marijuana patients can legally possess.
Advocates also worry that since the state has capped the number of I-502 licences issued, stores will concentrate on recreational marijuana strains and lack the specific kinds of medical strains that patients need. CannaLaw blogger Daniel Shortt describes the concern this way: “There’s a lack of market incentive to create the high CBD strains because they don’t have the psychoactive effect that consumers usually look for in cannabis.” The pot that makes you giggle is different from the pot that takes away your chronic pain. In practice, advocates say, the limits on potency could mean that a patients used to eating one highly-concentrated pot brownie will have to force-feed themselves a dozen low-concentration brownies every time they dose.
Or they may just go back to the black market, the elimination of which was a major factor in Washington voters passing the nation’s first legal recreational marijuana law.
“I will not be participating in the system,” says patient and activist Kirk Luddon, because he isn’t sure that their cannabis is pure of pesticides and other contaminants. He feels more confident in the product he gets from medical providers he’s known for years. “I will not set foot into a 502 store.”
Part of the legislature’s motivation for rolling the medical market into I-502 is simple: money. A state-commissioned report published in December estimates Washington’s $1.3 billion marijuana economy to be roughly evenly divided between legal I-502 stores, semi-legal medical dispensaries, and the illegal underground market. Pushing patients into I-502 stores—where they’ll have to pay an extra 37 percent in pot tax—would dramatically expand this new-found revenue source.
Another motive is to stay on the good side of federal law enforcement, which still considers pot a Schedule 1 narcotic (as does Washington State, bizarrely enough). A 2013 memo issued by Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan warned that the continued operation of medical marijuana businesses outside the regulations set up by I-502 was “not tenable and violates both state and federal law.”
Yet while Durkan’s memo, and in many ways the passage of I-502 itself, sent shivers through the medical marijuana community in Washington, you could hardly tell it was a dying movement for many years, with scores of new dispensaries opening across the state.
But that’s changed dramatically in the last 10 months, since SB 5052 became law.
Mendoza says that by the time the dust settles, the city will have shuttered something like 100 dispensaries.
The first wave of closings in Seattle affected stores that opened after I-502 went into effect. That’s because lawmakers, in SB 5052, effectively barred those stores from being eligible for recreational licenses. Mendoza says “about 50 places” have been shut down “with little more than a site visit and letters” from city regulators.
Another 50 or so that opened before 2013 have spent the past year trying and failing to get hold of a license, and so will also be closed.
“Our folks in the Department of Finance and Administrative Services,” says Mendoza, “beginning in I think late May, will send letters to them saying ‘Since you’re not getting a state license, so you need to close by [June] 30th at 11:59.’”
If any of those remain open, he says, the city will go through the same cycle of citations and letters that it did with the post-2013 dispensaries. “If they don’t close after the two rounds of citations,” says Mendoza, “then we’ll consider seizure of their product.” But this is a reluctant drug war, he says: “When we go to that level, we’re not arresting folks, we’re not detaining them, we’re simply—they’re facing a charge. And if they agree to close, the city attorney is very open to dismissing those charges.”
Mendoza, for his part, doesn’t pretend that the new system is perfect.
“It might not meet all the patient’s needs,” he says. “There might be a gap. And that will be unfortunate.”
But even medical marijuana advocates say that at this point, there’s no turning back.
Asked whether there will be any last minute resistance to the law, advocate and former legislative analyst Kari Boiter says “it just does not appear so.”
“These stores are being forced to simply shut their doors, and that’s bad for patients,” she says. “And it’s also bad for the economy, because we’re putting a whole lot of people out of work.”
Casey Jaywork covers City Hall and policy for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4332. Follow him on Twitter. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.