The Cannabis Patient Protection Act came into full effect Friday, July 1, and fireworks were certainly not the only thing being lit on the Plateau over the Independence Day weekend.
But the final enactment of the Cannabis Patient Protection Act was not as smooth as some were hoping for.
On June 28, the Washington state Department of Health announced it was having software issues with the Medical Marijuana Authorization Database and that it may not be ready by July 1.
The database is integral to the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, also known as Senate Bill 5052, because medical patients can only receive benefits from the bill if they are registered in the database and have their recognition card.
The DOH announced in the early hours of July 1 that the database was operational.
Although medical marijuana patients can now register themselves in the system and receive benefits like tax-free purchases in retail stores, grow more plants in their homes and have protection from arrest and prosecution, they are missing a crucial aspect of the bill that the DOH doesn’t control: the medical marijuana itself.
When the two marijuana retail stores that serve the Plateau – Mr. Bills of Buckley and The Green Door – opened their doors Friday morning, they lacked the medical marijuana that many were hoping would replace the marijuana that used to be supplied dispensaries.
In fact, none of the 300-plus medically-endorsed marijuana retail stores around the state had access to medical marijuana the day the Cannabis Patient Protection Act came into effect.
“Presently there are no medically compliant products… on the market,” Mikhail Carpenter, a Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman, wrote in an email.
Many medical marijuana patients are nervous about this transition, as dispensaries like Green Solution in South Hill and Magic Medicine in Puyallup could attest. Both dispensaries spent much of June 30 selling their remaining marijuana to patients before the Cannabis Patient Protection Act closed them down for good.
David Studer, the general manager of Green Solution in Auburn, said that it was an average day of sales for the South Hill location, but that patients were buying in bulk and stocking up because they were unsure how the bill will affect them and their access to marijuana.
“People aren’t sure where they’ll get their medicine or what they’ll pay to get it,” Studer said.
Medical vs. recreational marijuana
In terms of product, there are no differences between medical and recreational marijuana, said Kristi Weeks, a policy counselor with the state Department of Health.
“The only real difference between medical and recreational marijuana is the intent of the user,” she said in a 2015 interview, after the first parts of the Cannabis Patient Protection Act came into effect. “Some strains or forms of marijuana may be more typically used by a medical patient, such as a very high CBD and low THC strain. But they all come from the same plant.”
In fact, the Department of Health and the Liquor and Cannabis Board try to not use the term “medical marijuana,” because using that phrase makes it seem like there is a difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana, Weeks reiterated in a recent interview.
“Trainwreck is Trainwreck, whether it’s being used for someone’s glaucoma or for recreational purposes,” she said, referring to a popular high THC strain of marijuana famous for the surge of euphoria, creativity and happiness that hits users “like a freight train,” one marijuana review site stated.
So instead of medical marijuana, the LCB and DOH prefer the term “medically beneficial marijuana,” or “DOH compliant marijuana.”
Matthew Coffman, former assistant manager at the Magic Medicine medical marijuana dispensary in Puyallup said the DOH and LBC “couldn’t be more wrong,” about the differences between medical and recreational marijuana.
Magic Medicine is one of many medical marijuana dispensaries that have closed around the state due to the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, and that’s had a big effect on his patients, he said
“We’ve had patients crying,” he said. “This is the equivalent of all the pharmacies in your town shutting down and all the elderly people not knowing where to get their medication.”
Coffman said the dispensary decided not to apply for a recreational marijuana license because of a provision in I-502 that meant the store could no longer grow its own marijuana to sell, which Coffman and other employees took great pride in doing.
“We won’t put anybody else’s medicine on our shelves,” he said in a phone interview while continuing to help a store filled with patients.
The reason why is quality, Coffman said – Magic Medicine’s marijuana was 100 percent pesticide free, and it was grown in a closed-loop system (employees showered and changed clothes entering and exiting the grow area) in order to ensure the quality of the marijuana wasn’t compromised.
“Most of the shops that are selling ‘medical marijuana’ are selling pre-packaged material that has who-knows-what used on it throughout the life of the plant,” he said, noting that patients at Magic Medicine were able to examine the dispensary’s product before purchasing it. “We put a lot of love into our medicine.”
According to Weeks, the medically beneficial marijuana that is to be sold in recreational stores goes through extra testing to ensure its quality.
All marijuana products sold by retailers are tested for potency, moisture content, foreign matter and go through microbiological screening.
To be DOH compliant, marijuana products must also be screened for heavy metals and pesticides at the time of harvest and be screened for mycotoxins during the microbiological scan, Weeks said.
If marijuana products pass these additional tests, they can be labeled as Chapter 246-70 WAC Compliant.
Products like marijuana-infused edibles or drinks will be labeled as one of three categories: General use compliant, High CBD product or High THC products.
The consuming public can only purchase edibles labeled General use compliant and high CBD products.
General use compliant marijuana contains no more than 10 milligrams of active THC per serving and no more than 100 total milligrams of THC in a package.
High CBD products contain no more than 2 percent THC concentration and at least 25 times more CBD concentration by weight.
Only qualified medical marijuana patients who are entered into the Medical Marijuana Authorization Database are able to purchase high THC products, which can have up to 50 milligrams of THC per service and no more than 500 milligrams of THC in a package.
Although the DOH-compliant marijuana goes through additional tests to ensure high quality, Coffman said there is a list of approved pesticides and chemicals that are still allowed to be used on the plants.
Another reason Coffman disagrees with the Cannabis Patient Protection Act is because of what happens to the price of marijuana once it hits recreational retailers.
According to Coffman, the dispensary stocked a particular brand of edibles with 80 milligrams of THC that sold for $12, but he noticed the same brand of edibles at recreational stores with 10 milligrams of THC for $20 – a price hike from 15 cents to $1.85 per milligram of THC.
Not only does that mean some people are going to see a price increase in their medication, Coffman said, but 10 milligrams, or even the 50 milligrams qualifying medical marijuana patients can purchase, is not a high enough dose for medical patients.
The Medical Marijuana Authorization Database
The database is a secure compilation of medical marijuana patients in the state. The only groups that can access limited information from the database are certified medical marijuana consultants, employees of a medically-endorsed retail store, healthcare practitioners, law enforcement, patients entered in the database, the Department of Health, the Department of Revenue and the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Only patients that are entered into the database and have their recognition card (given to them by a marijuana consultant at a medically-endorsed marijuana retail store) on hand can receive the benefits of being a medical marijuana patient.
One benefit is the tax breaks. Medical marijuana patients can purchase their marijuana from a medically-endorsed retail store without sales tax.
The 37 percent excise tax still applies. Washington voters approved Advisory Vote No. 11 on the Nov. 3, 2015 ballot, which helped the legislature decide to keep the excise tax in place for medical marijuana patients.
The price difference between medical dispensary marijuana and recreational marijuana is something Studer and Coffman both said is a big concern of medical marijuana patients.
For this reason, a provision in the Cannabis Patient Protection Act allows recreational stores with a medical endorsement to donate marijuana to patients that can’t afford it.
“They can lower the price, have a sliding scale based on income, donate it for free… they can do whatever they want,” so long as the donated marijuana is still recorded in the state’s traceability system, Weeks said.
Other benefits include being able to purchase three times more marijuana and grow more plants in your home than a recreational consumer as well as have arrest protection.
Cooperatives vs. collectives
Until the Cannabis Patient Protection Act became fully active July 1, up to 10 medical marijuana patients were able to participate in a collective garden.
Under the old law, collective gardens could contain no more than 15 plants per person up to a total of 45 plants and have no more than 24 ounces of useable marijuana per patient, with no more than 72 ounces total.
Under the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, only four people can participate in a medical marijuana cooperative, which can grow up to six plants per patient. Collectives can grow more plants per patient if the patient is authorized by a health care practitioner to grow up to 15 plants. Cooperations can grow no more than 60 plants.
These cooperatives must be registered with the Liquor and Cannabis Board and are subject to inspection. The cooperative must also be located in the home of one of the patients in the cooperative, a restriction the collectives were not bound by.
Studer said that he’s tried to explain the new cooperative system to Green Solution’s patients, but added that while several showed interest, many were more focused on the potential shortage of medical marijuana or the higher prices of recreational marijuana to start considering this long term solution.
Counties and cities retain the ability to ban cooperatives from their jurisdictions by not zoning cooperatives. The city of Bonney Lake updated its municipal code June 14 to continue its ban on marijuana producers, processors, retailers and collectives to include cooperatives.