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Originally published Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 4:08 PM

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Editorial: Reform the medical-marijuana markets

The Legislature must merge the medical and recreational marijuana markets, or put at risk voters’ bold leap forward.

Seattle Times Editorial

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I don't know how many people realize this, but you have to pay for the docters... MORE
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FOR most of the past 15 years, the state Legislature has had a marijuana problem.

In 1998, Washington voters leapt way out ahead of lawmakers in legalizing medical marijuana. The Legislature seemed as comfortable with the idea as if it was being forced to wear a hair shirt, chafing at making necessary tweaks to the law.

Lawmakers’ boldest act — a 2011 bill written by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, to regulate medical-marijuana businesses — was gutted in an irrational veto by former Gov. Chris Gregoire. Since then, the Legislature has mostly sat on its hands, even as voters, once again, leapt past Olympia to embrace full legalization with Initiative 502.

This time, the Legislature can’t futz.

Retail marijuana stores created by Initiative 502 are set to open in early 2014 under rigorous rules, oversight and heavy sin taxes. Meanwhile, hundreds of medical-marijuana dispensaries statewide will operate without any such regulation, tax collection or meaningful barrier to entry.

That is an untenable legal and commercial conflict. The logical response is to fold the medical-marijuana storefronts into the I-502 recreational market.

Creating a single, tightly regulated system is critical if Washington is to avoid federal intervention with Initiative 502. In an Aug. 29 memo, U.S. Department of Justice said it would stand aside, for now, as Washington experimented with legal marijuana, so long as access was tightly controlled.

That same memo explicitly puts a bull's-eye on Washington’s Wild West dispensary scene. The threat is real. A federal crackdown on dispensaries would be bad for patients, and set up Washington’s grand experiment for an embarrassing failure as the world watches.

At the Legislature’s request, three state agencies released draft rules this week for merging the two markets and effectively closing dispensaries by 2015. These are a good starting point.

Lawmakers must protect access for legitimate, suffering medical-marijuana patients, allowing them or their providers to grow at home, or giving them a break from the steep marijuana sin taxes if they opt for recreational stores. To differentiate between patients and recreational users, the Legislature finally set up a patient registry. Washington is the only medical-marijuana state without one.

The most critical work will be to squeeze down the definition of a legitimate medical-marijuana patient so that it no longer is a wink-and-a-nod joke. A vague definition of pain has been exploited by rubber-stamp patient authorization clinics. Just four medical professionals, all naturopaths, have been disciplined for abusing the law, three of the cases stemming from a Seattle Times reporter’s dubious medical marijuana authorization at Hempfest in 2011.

It’s going to be messy political work, because noisy corners of the medical-marijuana industry will fight tooth and nail to preserve its regulation-free status. Ironically, its success at fighting even basic rules now mandates the industry give way to a truly regulated recreational market.

It must be done, or the Legislature risks clipping off, mid-jump, the voters’ great leap forward last fall.

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