Is a State-regulated Marijuana Industry Displacing MMJ Users In Washington?
When recreational marijuana use was legalized in Washington in July 2016, existing cannabis dispensaries were closed and stricter limits were set on patients and growers. Could it be possible that one day, medical cannabis patients will slowly disappear and be forgotten about and be replaced by a state regulated marijuana industry? One man's experience suggests yes.
In November 2011, I made the conscious decision to become a medical marijuana patient in the State of Washington. Both the date and place are pertinent to my experience as a patient because not only do the 29 states with medical marijuana laws differ on how to regulate it, those laws are often changed.
When I became a patient, the “gray market” in my state, created by SB 5073, was booming. The most recent revision to MMJ regulations allowed for patients to regulate themselves, while home-pot grows spiked. Another recent law increased the number of qualifying conditions and allowed more medical professionals to sign recommendations.
In the beginning of 2012, my small town had six medical dispensaries. These are small stores where qualifying patients could go to access their medicine in return for a “donation.” They are, for lack of a better word, pot stores, but you couldn’t call them that because there was no provision in the law that explicitly allowed for the sale of marijuana.
The laws of the time allowed almost any person to get a medical recommendation, so many of the illegitimate entrepreneurs of my high school days suddenly had headaches, felt nauseous, and became medical providers.
It took me a few months after I received my “green card”, which is what patients called their medical documentation, to understand why I suddenly had the urge to grow pot. I never dreamed of being a pot grower, but once I became a patient I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. Then, my very clever stoner friend told me, “Because you can!”
Anyone with a green card could grow 15 plants, and up to 45 plants per resident. I theorized at the time that one out of 10 houses in my town had a “medical” grow in it, and I was counted among those numbers.
I started my medical co-op garden with my girlfriend at the time in February 2012. We started with one light set-up and 15 baby starters. Over the 2.5 years we managed the garden, we produced about 30 pounds of medical cannabis, provided for roughly a dozen patients, mostly family, and made enough cash to pay the bills.
While growing, I was introduced to a large community of other growers in my area, and discovered many MMJ growers did home delivery for their “patients”. The law allowed for a qualifying patient to carry up to 24 ounces, so it was completely legal to drive around with a pound and a half of weed in your car and go door-to-door “giving” it to patients who made “donations” to the collective garden.
I thought the hypocrisy of the MMJ community was funny but harmless. Like most patients, I had a legitimate medical condition, but really, I just wanted to smoke pot. So, we called ourselves “patients” and we made “donations” to get our “medicine” so nobody had to go to jail for selling or possessing pot.
Everyone who wanted access to this self-regulated market could access it, and it didn’t cost tax payers money or hurt anyone. It was perfect.
Then, we legalized pot in Washington in November 2012.
Initiative 502 made it legal for any adult 21 and over to buy marijuana from a state-approved retail store. You must get a license to be a retailer, and there are only so many licenses issued per county.
Unlike the medical dispensaries who could sell their own pot all day, or partner with other growers if they chose, the new state regulated retailers are prohibited from growing or even having any open containers of pot in their store.
I-502 created a rigid, three-tier system to prevent large companies from monopolizing the market. It also put a tax on the grower and the processor. These taxes are now applied at the retail level, but the legal market still forces growers to sell their best quality of pot for around $83 an ounce to processors and retailers in order to be price-competitive at the retail level.
I-502 put an end to the unregulated medical marijuana market finally in July 2016. MMJ dispensaries were closed and stricter limits were set on patients and growers. MMJ patients could buy pot in retail stores and have the tax waived, but they had the same selection as any 21+ adult.
I didn’t renew my green card when it expired in 2014, and closed my garden in May 2014 so I could move in some roommates. I was reluctant to patronize the new state regulated market that had gutted the utopian economy of medical marijuana, but like many people, I eventually gave in.
I now enjoy the convenience of being able to walk in to a store and buy a joint, or a whole ounce, which is what many of my older peers say. It is great that the marijuana economy is no longer the gray market, and many people have opened businesses or started jobs because pot is legal in Washington.
But, I will always believe that we could have achieved the same goals without legalizing weed. I opposed I-502 because I believed there was a better way. Medical marijuana was untaxed, unregulated, and only affected the people who opted in. We can never know how many patients started grows, opened co-ops, and fed their families with the funds their gardens generated.
What we do know is that legal pot is here to stay and it is spreading across the country. Medical marijuana patients will slowly disappear and be forgotten about and be replaced by a state regulated marijuana industry.
I believe it is essential for every pot head, old stoner, and couch warrior to pay attention to what is happening in their state senate, and protect free access to marijuana.