Highlight on Washington: State to combine medical, retail consumer marijuana outlets

Washington is in the process of restructuring its marijuana regulations to implement the merger of the medical and retail consumer markets. New laws and regulations become effective July 1, 2016. As of that date, the state will operate a cannabis database including individuals whose health care practitioners have  prescribed marijuana for their medical use and their “designated providers,”  individuals age 21 or older who are authorized to buy or grow cannabis for the patient’s use.

A long, strange trip to the new law

Washington legalized the medical use of marijuana or cannabis in 1998 through a citizen initiative. According to the legislative findings in the 2015 Cannabis Patient Protection Act, patients faced difficulties finding a legal supply. The law was amended to allow patients to grow their own cannabis in limited quantities in their own homes or in collective gardens. However, there were no standards for purity or efficacy as ordinarily exist for prescribed medications.

In 2012, Washington passed another citizen initiative allowing the recreational use of marijuana by individuals age 21 and older. This law provided for the regulation and taxation of cannabis, including testing to verify compliance with standards for impurities and THC content. Producers, processors, and retail sellers all must be licensed. This development placed the state in the “untenable position” of having protections for recreational users but not for medical users.

Retail purchase for recreational use

Retail stores licensed to sell cannabis opened in July 2014. They are permitted to sell to anyone age 21 or over up to one ounce of usable marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused product in solid form, 72 ounces of infused product in liquid form, or seven grams of marijuana concentrate.

In order to sell to patients using cannabis for medical purposes, existing licensed retailers must obtain a medical endorsement to  their licenses. Dispensaries, which were licensed to sell to patients for medical use, may obtain retail licenses and continue to sell either to patients alone or to all lawful purchasers.

Rights of medical users

Patients who are not registered but have been prescribed cannabis by their health care practitioner are permitted to possess more than a retail consumer. As of July 1, 2016, to obtain maximum legal protection, patients will have to permit their health care practitioner to report them to the cannabis database. The practitioner’s report will include the medical condition the patient is treating with cannabis, identify any designated provider, and, if the patient needs a larger amount than the law typically allows for medical use, state the quantity of cannabis that the patient should be permitted to possess. Each patient and each designated provider registered with the database will be issued a “recognition card.”

Patients under the age of 18 may be authorized to use cannabis; their designated provider would be their parent or guardian. Patients between the ages of 18 and 21 may enter cannabis stores but may not consume cannabis on the premises.

As of July 1, 2016, a patient who is registered with the database:

  • may purchase up to three times the amount permitted to recreational users from a licensed retail store, i.e., three ounces of usable marijuana, 48 ounces of solid marijuana-infused product, 216 ounces of a liquid marijuana-infused product.
  • may possess up to or 21 grams of concentrate.
  • may grow cannabis at home for medical use, including may have up to six plants and up to eight ounces of usable marijuana from the plants. The patient’s health care practitioner may recommend that the patient be permitted up to 15 plants and up to 16 ounces of marijuana from the plants.
  • may form a cooperative comprising up to four patients or designated providers to grow cannabis for their medical use.
  • may not be arrested for possession of the permitted amount of cannabis. Presentation of the identification card verifies the immunity from arrest.

Before July 1, 2016, any patient, or after July 1, 2016, any patient who is not registered with the database but has authorization from a health care practitioner:

  • may purchase the amount authorized for recreational users from a licensed retail store.
  • may grow cannabis at home for medical use and possess up to four plants and up to six ounces of cannabis from those plants.
  • may raise the medical authorization as an affirmative defense in court if he or she is arrested for unlawful possession.