The decision by Washington voters to legalize marijuana as medicine took root in the fall of 1998 — the season when Initiative 692 became law.
That makes the state’s experiment with legal medical marijuana almost 18 years old, a tumultuous age for humans and, as it turns out, an industry being forced to go legit as the state folds medical pot into the regulated system for recreational marijuana Friday.
The pot dispensaries and the green crosses that marked many of those stores are going away as the state works to regulate the dispensaries’ share of the market — a market variously described by its detractors as “gray” and having the traits of “the wild West.”
Dispensary owners, their employees, and the growers and processors who supply the dispensaries have been forced to figure out what to do next.
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While medical marijuana will remain in a state-sanctioned and regulated form, a distinct era of marijuana commerce is coming to an end in Washington.
What it likely left is a potent legacy.
“I believed it then and I believe it now,” said Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the Liquor Control Board during the state’s transition to a legal marijuana market. “If we had not had medical marijuana first, we wouldn’t have legal marijuana now.”
Under legal marijuana, that state has:
▪ A legal enterprise that has had total sales of $934 million in fiscal year 2016, a period that ends Thursday, and has produced $178 million in taxes, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. Average daily sales were $3.4 million as of mid-June.
▪ The state has licensed 1,012 producers and processors, and 384 retailers, as of June 23, according to the agency.
▪ Fewer people facing criminal charges for marijuana. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 8,000 cases were filed in Washington courts for misdemeanor marijuana offenses in 2009. In 2013, the first full year of legalization, that number fell to 120 cases.
▪ Because it was their livelihood and because they could talk openly about what they’ve learned, medical marijuana created a workforce of thousands who became exhaustively knowledgeable about marijuana, especially how to grow it indoors.
CRITICS STILL TROUBLED
Others might see medical marijuana as a bad seed that bore ill fruit.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs passed a resolution in 2011 opposing Initiative 502, which legalized the possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana for people ages 21 and older.
The initiative’s opposition was financially dwarfed by the initiative’s backers, who spent $6.1 million while opponents spent $4,305.91, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. I-502 passed 56 percent to 44 percent in 2012.
“We haven’t revisited this as a group,” said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “It’s the law now, and we don’t make the law.
“But our concerns are just as valid as they were in 2012. We thought it would increase access to youth, we thought we’d see an increase in drug- and substance-affected drivers and that it would put us in conflict with federal law. I think all of those have been borne out.”
The Washington Traffic Safety Commission says 2015 data show an increase in the number of drivers in deadly crashes who tested positive for active THC — the psychoactive element of marijuana — and not just residual traces of marijuana.
The number of drivers who tested positive for active THC after a fatal crash, according to the commission, rose from 65 percent (38 of 60 drivers in 2013) to 85 percent (75 of 89 drivers) in 2014. The commission called the increase “alarming.”
One of the assertions in the law enforcement association’s 2011 resolution was “the legalization of marijuana will increase the perception that marijuana is harmless, particularly among youth, leading to an increase in use, dependence and its consequences.”
“We get anecdotal information from school districts, especially in King County, of students who have ingested products,” Barker said. “School district folks have talked about an enormous increase in the use of ingested products among students.”
The data on marijuana use among youths are mixed, but suggest marijuana use among some teens has actually dipped.
The 2014, Washington State Healthy Youth survey was conducted nearly two years after Washington legalized the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana for people ages 21 and older. About 223,000 students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 participated in the survey, and one of the questions was whether they had used marijuana in the previous month.
The survey found that marijuana use had fallen among some groups in Washington from the previous survey in 2010. Among eighth-graders in 2014, 7 percent said they used marijuana in the previous month, compared to 9 percent in 2010. Among 10th graders, it was 18 percent, compared to 20 percent in 2010.
However, use among 12th-graders increased slightly to 27 percent in 2014 from 26 percent in 2010.
The survey also found that more students don’t believe using marijuana regularly is harmful. The perception of harm fell across all grade levels, but was most significant among 12th-graders. Answering the question “Using marijuana regularly has no risk/only slight risk,” 46 percent of 12-graders agreed with the statement. In the 2006 survey, 21 percent of 12-graders agreed with the statement.
Lt. Gov Brad Owen, who was a critic of legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana, said he thinks future surveys will show that youth use of marijuana is increasing due to the growing perception that the drug is safe. He said that could lead more people to become addicted to marijuana or other substances in their adulthood.
Owen, who previously ran a nonprofit focused on preventing youth substance abuse, said there’s no doubt that medical marijuana opened the door for broader legalization of pot. That’s one reason he opposed the initiative in 1998, he said.
“We knew that was their ultimate goal,” Owen said.
Now, he said, “All the things we said would be happening are happening.”
CHANGES IN 2011 PROMPT BOOM
After voters approved medical marijuana in 1998, the topic was largely out of sight for most Washingtonians. For more than a decade, the effort to make the medical marijuana law work largely was confined to users and producers, and the Legislature.
That changed when hundreds of dispensaries began popping up around 2011, especially in King County. Dispensaries, also called collective gardens and access points, capitalized on the Legislature’s effort to regulate the distribution of medical marijuana.
Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed portions of Senate Bill 5073 in April 2011 on the grounds that state regulation of a substance that was illegal on the federal level could open state employees to prosecution.
The elements of the bill that survived allowed collective gardens and home grows, contributing to a proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries around the state.
People with medical marijuana authorization cards could legally get together and grow up to 45 plants — although many growers stretched that limit. The legislation didn’t expressly prohibit the distribution of medical marijuana to qualifying patients, so dispensaries blossomed. Green crosses arose around the state, becoming fixtures of the urban landscape. Websites such as Weedmaps and Leafly led people with marijuana authorizations straight to dispensaries, whose facades sometimes gave zero clue to what was going inside. Marijuana growers found a ready market for their goods.
Brian Caldwell, owner of Triple C Cannabis Club on Sixth Avenue in Tacoma, was part of that rush, opening his doors in February 2011.
“A few people in Seattle were given the law and told, ‘Hey, make this work,’ ” Caldwell, 41, said. “Once they did, a lot of other lawyers figured out they could open as a collective garden access point. Once a few people started doing it in some high-profile areas, it just exploded from there.”
One of the abiding rules of selling marijuana in the 20th century carried into this 21st century legal framework. To survive, you don’t call unnecessary attention to yourself.
“You had people that had been underground in the cannabis industry and saw an opportunity to help patients and make some money, and a lot just went about it the wrong way — with the green crosses and everything else,” Caldwell said. The right way, he added, was “keeping your head down, doing what you needed to do for the patients, and also respecting city ordinances.”
A few storefronts opened before him, “But they were quickly raided and shut down. I’m the oldest one still in operation in Tacoma.”
Triple C provides little hint to the nature of its business, except for a small sticker on the bottom of the front door for the website Leafly.
Caldwell has a state retail license and is opening a recreational store in the same building, adjacent to Triple C. The new store will have a medical endorsement from the state, which allows retailers to sell products to patients registered with the state, sales tax free.
The presence of an impending new incarnation of the store was a surprise to one of Triple C’s customers.
Lamon Allen, 46, said he’s been going to Triple C for two years — “I’ve got a pain in my leg” — and hadn’t given much thought to what he’d do when Triple C had to close.
“I knew about this July 1 thing, but I figured I’d conquer that when I got to it,” Allen said, adding that he’ll continue to take his business to the former Triple C folks.
Ciaran Wilburn is the owner of The Healing Center, a dispensary on a leafy stretch of Capitol Way North in Olympia. He opened his store March 2011, making his the longest operating storefront dispensary in Olympia. Wilburn and his partner have three recreational store locations — on Martin Way in Olympia, another near Mud Bay and the third on Martin Way in Lacey.
Wilburn, who grew up in Olympia, started the store when he was 25, with the motivation that attracts many young entrepreneurs.
“I was from Washington, but I was living down in California and kind of saw the (medical marijuana) system, and I was like anybody who was trying to get into a business,” Wilburn said. “The guys who are in first are the guys who are going to do well. I saw not necessarily an opportunity to make money, but an opportunity to be part of something.”
On his first day of business in 2011, Wilburn had eight customers (which dispensaries always made a point of calling patients) enter his store, a store that didn’t suggest that marijuana was available inside.
Wilburn said he has no doubt that medical marijuana made legal marijuana palatable for a majority of Washingtonians.
“Absolutely. It was less the people that were involved in medical marijuana than the people outside who saw the success stories,” Wilburn said. “The positive effects that cancer patients and especially HIV patients experienced as far as pain treatment and appetite were undeniable.”
‘VERY WIDE RANGE OF INTEGRITY, HONESTY’
I-502 co-sponsor Roger Roffman, a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington, provided cannabis to cancer patients in the 1970s, spurred by a medical journal report suggesting that marijuana taken before chemotherapy could ease the side effects of the treatment. As he wrote in his book “Marijuana Nation,” he was a marijuana user at the time, eventually quitting in his mid-30s because he felt he had grown dependent on it.
Roffman said his view of how Washington’s medical dispensaries conducted themselves over the past half decade is influenced by what he saw in California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996.
“My impression is that there’s a very wide range of integrity, honesty, respect for science, among people who have been growing and selling marijuana for medical purposes,” Roffman said. “I’ve been in some areas, California as an example, where it was very clear that the medical marijuana dispensary people were deeply invested in the science underlying the cannabis products that they were producing and dispensing to patients.
“Then there have been other people, clearly, who were doing the ‘wink, wink’ ‘nod, nod’ approach to medical cannabis and were as far away in an investment in science as they could be.”
And where did Washington’s dispensaries fit in that range?
“My impression was that it was both,” Roffman said. “I wouldn’t begin to estimate the percentage of both, but by word of mouth and what I heard from some dispensary owners, they believed that the science-oriented dispensaries were in the minority.”
Looking back on four decades in the marijuana field, Roffman says the state has charted a bold course on marijuana, but he sees legalization as “an incomplete step in the process” toward allowing thorough research of marijuana’s potential medical merits.
The federal government has designated marijuana as a Schedule I drug — drugs that are defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Consequently, the government restricts research into the plant’s possible medicinal qualities.
“It’s not what I had hoped, but I think we are eventually going to get there,” Roffman said. “The end process would be a fully legitimized research program that explored the medical potential of the cannabis plant and its various formulations and applications …
“Sooner or later, we’re going to see this play out in a legitimate, above-board, well-funded program of research.”
November 1998: Initiative 692 (Shall the medical use of marijuana for certain terminal or debilitating conditions be permitted, and physicians authorized to advise patients about medical use of marijuana?) is approved by Washington voters 59 percent to 41 percent. The initiative makes Washington among the second group of states, including Alaska and Oregon, to legalize medical marijuana in the United States.
October 2008: The state Department of Health defines what constitutes a 60-day supply of marijuana for patients: 24 ounces of marijuana, plus 15 plants.
April 2011: Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoes portions of Senate Bill 5073, designed to regulate the distribution of medical marijuana, over her concerns that state regulation of a substance that was illegal on the federal level would open state employees to prosecution. Portions of the bill that allowed collective gardens and home grows were not vetoed, contributing to the subsequent proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries around the state.
November 2012: Washington voters, by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin, approve Initiative 502, which legalized possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for people 21 years of age and older and established protocols for state licensing of marijuana stores. It became law in December.
April 2015: Gov. Jay Inslee signs Senate Bill 5052, merging the medical market into the state-sanctioned recreational market that was created by I-502. The provisions of SB 5052 included requiring licensed retailers to obtain certification to sell medical-grade marijuana and establishing a voluntary patient database. Most importantly, it forces the closure of medical marijuana dispensaries.
July 1, 2016: SB 5052 goes into effect.
Source: Washington state Senate