Last Update: May 19, 2015

Washington overhauls medical marijuana program; continues to criminalize individuals under 21

On April 24, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 5052 into law, making numerous changes to and giving the state control over Washington’s medical marijuana program. The governor did veto certain sections of this legislation, including provisions that would have created several new felonies for growing and selling medical marijuana outside the state-regulated structure. For more details on vetoed sections, please read Gov. Inslee’s veto letter.

Under the terms of the new law, medical marijuana dispensaries operating under local authority will be phased out. Patients will instead access their medicine from retail shops that hold a medical endorsement and are licensed by the state’s Liquor Control Board. The new law also creates a voluntary patient registry. Patients who sign up with the registry will be allowed to purchase more marijuana per transaction, receive a modest tax break, and be protected from arrest if they are in possession of their registration card.

Patients retain the ability to grow their own medicine, both individually and collectively. Patients who join the registry are allowed to cultivate six plants, while those who are not registered will be allowed four plants. Collective membership has been reduced from 10 patients to four and a registration requirement has been added. However, the law increased the number of plants a collective may cultivate from 45 to 60.

Unfortunately, the legislature failed to address the ongoing issue of how to penalize individuals under 21 for simple possession of marijuana. Even after passage of I-502, Washingtonians under 21 still face criminal penalties for the simple possession of marijuana. According to the ACLU, nationwide, 62% of marijuana arrests in 2010 were for people who were 24 and younger, and 34% were for teenagers or youth. 

Retail marijuana sales begin in Washington

Despite initial supply issues and the fact that retail stores did not open until July 8, 2014, Washington generated about $15 million dollars in marijuana taxes in 2014. In December alone, sales and excise taxes on marijuana sold to adults 21 and older totaled more than $5 million dollars. Meanwhile, the state continues to save additional money due to a sharp decrease in misdemeanor cases. In 2013, 120 misdemeanor cases were filed compared to 5,531 cases in 2012.

It has now been over two years since a majority of Washington voters decided that it was time to end the failed experiment of marijuana prohibition. The state has enacted common sense regulations to ensure safety and to prevent access by youth and, as indicated above, is now realizing revenue from sales instead of wasting it on enforcement. While there is certainly still work to be done, it is clear that the doom and gloom scenarios anticipated by opponents to reform have not materialized, giving comfort to policy makers across the country who are weighing similar policy changes in their jurisdictions.

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