Patients wary of possible medical cannabis changes

By Rachel La Corte

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 2 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, Dave Kois shows visitors his marijuana plants in a grow room of his Loaded Soda business, which provides marijuana-infused products like soda and chocolate, to medical marijuana dispensaries, in Olympia, Wash. Two bills currently working their way through the Legislature seek to reconcile the medical market with the new recreational market that was approved by the voters of Washington state in the fall of 2012.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Dozens of marijuana plants await harvest at a production site for "Loaded Soda," an Olympia-based business that provides marijuana-infused sodas, vitamin waters and other products to more than 400 medical marijuana collectives throughout the state.

Owner Dave Kois stands in the middle of the three-foot plants, discussing the different strains of marijuana that he's growing, as well as his thoughts on efforts by the state to regulate the medical market that he currently caters to. Two bills working their way through the Legislature seek to reconcile the medical market with the new recreational market approved by voters in the fall of 2012.

Lawmakers in Olympia have worried that the largely unregulated medical system would undercut the taxed, recreational industry, and U.S. Justice Department officials have warned that the state's medical marijuana status quo is untenable.

"It's about money for the state," said Kois, who grows marijuana that has high levels of a compound known as CBD and is low in THC, the chemical that causes users to get high. "They see medical as a threat to their tax money on the recreational side. I understand that. But I think that the two should be regulated separately. They're two separate systems and they should stay that way."

The state has allowed medical use of marijuana since 1998. The hundreds of dispensaries that currently exist statewide are not regulated by the state, but loosely operate under current state law language on "collective gardens" that allows qualifying patients to pool their resources to grow, produce and deliver medical cannabis. Under the measures being considered, collective gardens would be eliminated, meaning that unless current dispensaries receive a license from the state, they will have to close.

In 2011, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of a bill that sought to regulate the state's medical marijuana system, expressing concerns about possible prosecution of state workers under federal law. At the end of 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize possession of recreational marijuana by adults 21 and older. The votes also called for systems of state-licensed pot growers, processors and retail stores.

Sales have already begun in Colorado, but licensed stores in Washington state aren't expected to open until this summer.

Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center who is sponsoring one of the measures being considered by the Legislature, calls the state's current medical marijuana system "the Wild West."

"Some regulation in this area would do us good," she said. "It's the only way to ensure that the feds are going to keep their noses out of our business."

Kois, himself a medical marijuana patient who has been using the low-THC products that he makes in order to help treat his Crohn's disease, has applied for a producer license from the state. He said he plans to move his grow into a 21,000-square-foot space in Centralia to accommodate the increased demand that will come from the recreational market, as well as the need to start growing high-THC plants to grow alongside the medical-only ones he grows now. Currently, he has two lines of products, including chocolates, sodas and hard candies: blue labels have a high CBD content; red labels indicate high-THC marijuana, which Kois currently buys from other growers to produce.

"I've seen the writing on the wall for over a year," he said.

Rivers' medical marijuana measure is awaiting a vote in the Senate Ways & Means Committee. Her bill is similar to a House bill that has already passed that chamber and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.

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