If you think that merging the two systems would have no negative impact on patients, think again. Four years after the first recreational initiatives passed, we now have a clear example of what would happen under a consolidated market. It comes from Washington State, in the form of a cautionary tale of two systems, fueled by a strange new addiction in the legislature...
“Washington’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana... was also the beginning of the end of the state’s medical-marijuana (MMJ) culture,” reported Casey Jaywork in Seattle Weekly. “MMJ advocates warned that sooner or later the recreational system would replace the patchwork system of medical providers, potentially making it harder for patients to get their medicine. In 2015, the state legislature proved them right by passing the Cannabis Patient Protection Act” – a title which journalist Tobias Coughlin-Bogue calls“perhaps the most egregious bit of doublespeak ever” [emphasis added]. His assessment of the Act is ominously similar to the Prop. 64 deception: “The law does not protect patients. In fact, evidence suggests that it will put the state's most vulnerable patients at risk.”
Previously, patients could possess up to 24 ounces and grow up to 15 plants. Under the Patient Protection Act, they can only possess three ounces and grow just 4-6 plants. “Our state is protecting patients from what?” asks activist Vivian McPeak. “Having an adequate supply?”
Of course, Washington's patients were all promised this wouldn't happen. During the state's campaign for recreational cannabis in 2012, patients were courted by proponents of Initiative 502 (I-502) with the same promise that Prop. 64 makes now: that Washington's medical cannabis program would be left intact. But what the proponents failed to mention was that the initiative contained a rare provision that allows legislators to alter it at their whim.
Just six months after the first recreational pot shop opened its doors, the legislature introduced a measure to eradicate the state's 15-year-old MMJ program, close all medical dispensaries and drastically limit how much patients could grow and possess, in a deliberate move to force patients into the heavily-taxed recreational system. And today, Washington's patients, full of regret, are making headlines for not being able to find the medicine they need in the recreational marketplace (and not being able to afford it even if they can), having their deeply private medical conditions announced openly in retail stores and being pushed underground to the black market.
Rep. Chris Hurst, the former police officer most responsible for merging the two markets, announced his unscrupulous plan to eliminate the competition in 2013, saying, “All you have to do is make examples of five or six people and the entire [MMJ] industry collapses almost immediately. You have to have something to replace it, and that’s what the recreational market is,” he was quoted in The Huffington Post.
Eradicating the MMJ program and forcing the sick to buy their medicine from recreational outlets is a move which greatly restricts patient access, as those stores typically do not carry the kinds of products that have the highest medicinal benefit, since those products usually are far less psychoactive than the dizzying levels of THC most recreational consumers demand. Despite all the promises the initiative’s proponents made to the contrary, Washington's most vulnerable cannabis consumers – the seriously and terminally ill – to put it bluntly, got screwed.
“I’ve been without medical [cannabis] for two weeks,” said Shelia Scott, a patient who requires higher-dosage products than the recreational system allows, in The Olympian. “Now, I’m in an extreme amount of pain and am suffering because I can’t get anything anywhere.”
Kari Boiter, a medical cannabis patient and a member of advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said the transition has been “everything patients feared.” She stocked up on medical cannabis prior to July 1, but said in the News Tribune, “When I run out, I cannot honestly tell you where I’ll get the products I’m using now.”
“One patient I spoke with reported that, in the recreational market, he pays around $200 a month for products that used to cost $50 in the medical market.” A veteran he interviewed said he couldn't find enough CBD – a highly therapeutic component of cannabis that is nonpsychoactive and most effective in extremely concentrated doses – at recreational stores, “so he grows his own. He sent me a selfie from his grow room, and it contained far more plants than the new law would allow, even with a doctor's recommendation.”
The reporter concludes, “As I discovered when interviewing veterans who use high-CBD cannabis for PTSD, this is literally a life-or-death issue. If we consider our state compassionate, and I like to fool myself into thinking that we do, it's not something we can afford to wait and see on.”
In an article titled, “Forced Into the Black Market,” Coughlin-Bogue elaborated further on the real-world complications of merging the recreational system with medical:
“Both the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board and the Washington State Department of Health – the state's two regulatory agencies that govern the new medical cannabis system – have stated that they believe the only difference between medical and recreational use is the intent of the user. Essentially, that the needs of the medical market can be just as easily served by the recreational market. If only that were true.” In the case of three-and-a-half-year-old Madeline Holt, he reports, access to cannabis is a life-or-death situation. Madeline was born with a terminal genetic disorder that causes frequent seizures. A year ago, her mother was told that the toddler had only one day to live. Out of options and out of time, she turned to cannabis in the form of CBD oil, a product that's been making waves in epileptic communities for years, especially since CNN's Gupta publicly extolled the medicinal virtues of the plant.
Madeline's mother's “greatest fear is that, due to an inadequate supply of affordable medicine, she'll be forced to get hers illegally:
I can't really do that. I can't afford to do that,
so I'm forced into the black market and forced
to just hope that I have people who
is that my child is living on borrowed time, I'm
As sad as this narrative is, it is one that is destined to be repeated in California if Prop. 64 passes. This is because regardless of its claims, Prop. 64 will replace, repeal and supersede Prop. 215. It is important to note that Prop. 215 is a voter initiative. And under state law, there is only one way a voter initiative can be changed, and that is with another voter initiative. Since Prop. 64 is also a voter initiative, and purports to regulate and tax “both nonmedical and medical marijuana” (Section 2B), Prop. 64 will unquestionably repeal Prop. 215.
And just like Washington's much-derided initiative, it also would give the legislature the same rare and unfettered power to alter the initiative in any way it sees fit. In Washington, lawmakers decided to use that power to increase tax revenue by nixing the MMJ program. In California, it appears that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has similar plans.
In a recent interview with Mother Jones, Newsom makes clear not only his expectation that the two markets will become one, but that the reasons for this are entirely based on increasing potential tax revenue: “If you don't tax one but you tax the other,” he said, “everyone remains 'sick.'” Most patients would likely disagree with that statement, suggesting instead that if you don't tax the medical market, the sick have a fighting chance to heal.
In Washington, at least one lawmaker thinks the state is what's sick, suffering from a rare affliction known as “political addiction to marijuana taxes.” Rep. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle is the House Democrats’ chief tax writer. Although he doesn't “necessarily regret Initiative 502 passing,” he has been a vocal critic of the state's implementation of the commercial recreational system and the wanton money-grab he sees being perpetrated on the backs of patients. “I very much regret the ineffective and unwieldy policy implementation that has been a disservice to the people of our state in both the recreational and medical markets,” he states in a lengthy exposé. “The public was promised a well regulated and appropriately taxed system. We have neither.”
He goes on to say, “The troubling part... that I initially anticipated but did not fully grasp is a reckless, uncontrollable political addiction to marijuana taxes” – which he says are so high that they may make legal cannabis unable to compete with the black market, rendering this entire experiment ineffective.
Such is the climate created when instead of simply repealing prohibition and decriminalizing cannabis, an initiative sets out to install a corporatized commercial industry backed by a state-sanctioned cartel. For Washington, it is too late. But California can still vote No on Prop. 64. And to save the medical cannabis industry from irreparable ruin, we must.