Inslee should sign marijuana reforms

Washington lawmakers finally forged a grand compromise on the state’s unfolding experiment with legal marijuana. An amended, bipartisan bill passed in the Senate by a 41-to-8 wide margin on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 5052, in effect, merges the long-standing medical marijuana market with the newer, regulated recreational market.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is likely to sign the measure, and he should. It removes a significant legal cloud from the twin pot markets that are being tolerated but not endorsed by the federal government.

The federal forbearance hinges in no small part on the state’s commitment to strictly regulate its markets – which in Colorado, a state that like Washington legalized recreational pot use in 2012, has been the case all along for both recreational and medicinal sales.

Here the longer standing medical marijuana market, which was unregulated and untaxed, was competing side by side with the taxed and regulated recreational market.

Under the merger bill, the markets will become one, and collective pot gardens are eliminated as of July 2016; but cooperatives will be allowed to grow pot for up to four patients. There also are provisions to put medical buyers’ names voluntarily in a registry or database.

Those on the registry and with valid medical authorizations to use medicinal products would be allowed to possess three times as much pot, or three ounces of dry product, as well as other amounts of solids infused with marijuana, liquids and concentrates. For those not on the registry or lacking medical cards, the limit is one ounce of dry marijuana.

Under the compromise buyers of medical marijuana also would avoid additional sales taxes if they sign onto the registry. But marijuana sold in both markets would be subject to a single 30 percent tax under separate legislation moving in the House. That tax replaces current levies at multiple levels of production or resale.

Under the second measure, local governments would receive a portion of those pot taxes – potentially $10 million a year or more – if they allow shops to operate locally.

The market-merger bill was sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who said “the reality is that we have a thriving illicit market,” which her legislation aims to shut down. Some medicinal dispensaries favored regulation; some opposed the bill, fearing higher taxes for patients.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, sponsored a rival bill, SB 5519, and voted against Rivers’ measure. Kohl-Welles said SB 5052 doesn’t adequately answer the needs of medical marijuana patients, particularly in rural areas where licensed stores may not open right away to replace dispensaries closed down by the law.

Kohl-Welles also questioned making local government responsible for closures of non-conforming medicinal shops, believing it is the duty of the state’s regulatory agency. Under the bill, that agency is renamed as the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Washington’s political adventure with passage of Initiative 502 made it a pioneer in marijuana policy, just as it was among the early states authorizing medicinal pot sales.

This legislation moves the state forward in a policy experiment that bears close watching – by state officials and national authorities who may eventually be persuaded to change federal law, too.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been corrected to show Sen. Kohl-Welles sponsored a rival marijuana reform bill.