Little Drama, Lots of Doubts as Washington’s Medical Marijuana Industry Goes Dark

It’s not yet clear how many patients will switch to licensed stores, versus going underground.

Friday was the day. As of July 1, state and local authorities have vowed to crack down on medical-marijuana dispensaries which lack government-issued cannabis licenses. By all appearances, the day has come and gone without any major drama.

But patients are still upset about reduced access to their medicine. Ryan Day, who uses cannabis to treat his son’s epilepsy, says that “recreational stores aren’t carrying the product we need. The supply chain is just not there.” Day says he grows cannabis in his garage and then refines it into a highly concentrated solution which he mixes into his 5-year-old son’s applesauce. The solution is very high in CBD, a chemical in cannabis that helps with body pain and other conditions, and low in THC, the main chemical that gets you high. “There is no detectable THC in” the solution, Day says.

Before today, it was nice to have unlicensed dispensaries around in case his crop failed, he says. Now that more-expensive licensed pot shops are the only game in town, Day says, there’s no affordable fall-back plan. “If I fail, if my harvest dies, my son is screwed,” Day says.

Day isn’t alone. “It’s going to be terrible,” says one dispensary owner in central Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears she’ll be targeted by police. “We have literally had people on the verge of tears about ‘What am I going to do July 1st?’ They can’t afford to go into these recreational stores and pay those high taxes on top of the already inflated prices that the licensed I-502 stores have.”

Last year state legislators decided that because Washington now has a taxed, licensed system of recreational cannabis shops, there’s no longer any reason to tolerate the gray market of unlicensed dispensaries that have been around since 1998 but have proliferated since 2012. So they allowed 222 dispensaries to become licensed while requiring the rest to shut their doors. The legislature agreed to allow patients to buy more, and more potent, cannabis at slightly lower prices in licensed stores; and it created a new “medical endorsement” for recreational shops that seek to also stock their shelves with medicinal products.

To get those benefits, patients with cannabis prescribed to them by a doctor must voluntarily register in a Department of Health-controlled database—which was barely ready in time for Friday’s deadline due to delays from a software contractor. To get on that database, according to a spokesperson for the Liquor and Cannabis Board, patients must bring a doctor-signed form (created by the Department of Health last year) and identification to any licensed store with a medical endorsement. There, a trained “consultant” will register the patient in the state database and give them a card identifying them as a registered patient.

As of last week, 21 unlicensed cannabis stores, producers, and processors were still open in Seattle, according to David Mendoza, Mayor Ed Murray’s pot czar. He said that the city has been in the process of “hand-delivering letters and informing each of them in person that they must be closed by 11:59 p.m. on June 30th. If they remain open after that date and time, they could face a $1,000 citation and/or a misdemeanor for operating a marijuana business without a regulatory business license.” The goal, Mendoza emphasized, was to close the unlicensed shops without arresting anyone.

There is some evidence that Friday’s cutoff has pushed more cannabis patients into licensed stores, as designed. Dave Good, owner of the Green Door, which was an unlicensed dispensary until yesterday and is scheduled to reopen as a licensed store with a medical endorsement on the 15th, said that they had “probably double” the normal amount of patients on Thursday. John Branch, owner of Ponder in the Central District, said his phone had been “blowing up all morning” with calls from patients trying to figure out where they can now buy their medicine.

Yet there remains wide skepticism toward the new pot order, even among those who stand to profit from it. “I anticipate a rush in the next two weeks” of patients trying out licensed stores, says Joby Sewell of Cannabis City, a 502 shop in SoDo. “And then it will die down” after patients see how inadequate licensed stores are to their needs.

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