Medical Marijuana and the Patient Protection Act: One Year Later

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What Difference Has a Year Made?

On April 24, 2015, Governor Jay Inslee signed SB 5052, known as the Patient Protection Act, which provided new guidelines for selling medical marijuana in Washington, and directed the state's Department of Health to implement them by July 1st, 2016.

These new guidelines represented a radical shift in how medical marijuana was grown, packaged, and sold, and it transformed it seemingly overnight.

As the state forged ahead on recreational marijuana reforms, they realized they also needed to give attention to the regulation of medical marijuana. But this process upset the status quo, and a community who had grown accustomed to doing things their own way -- it had evolved in a grass roots manner to help thousands of patients, but there wasn't a lot of oversight regarding product quality and processing. Without independent regulation, the community had become built upon relationships.

These new regulations were a substantial change for many patients who had found stability in a culture of low-cost product and a familial atmosphere at their neighborhood dispensaries. They could smell jars of nugs, hand-pick close, and even enjoy a dab bar on site -- all of which would soon be illegal.

But change was not made simply for the sake of change: Things had to be different in order to comply with the Cole Memo, a Justice Department memo from the Obama administration, which set clear expectations of transparency, traceability, prevention of distribution to minors, risk reduction, and more, in order for states to legalize cannabis in their states without risk of federal interference.

The new approach to medical marijuana had many critics and many different drafts of bills, but SB 5052 would eventually be law and things would be very different as a result. Some of the major changes that went into effect on July 1st, 2016, include:

  • Medical marijuana dispensaries that were unable to transition to an 'I-502' retail store would be closed, and medical marijuana would now be sold via licensed retailers with medical endorsements and an on-site Medical Marijuana Consultant
  • No consumption could take place on site
  • All products sold as medical marijuana would have to adhere to the rules laid out for their recreational counterparts: tested, packaged, and sealed until after purchase

All patients with a valid medical recommendation would still be allowed Affirmative Defense under the law, and those who registered with the state's database of patients would also be afforded arrest protection, increased possession limits, and grow allowances.

As a result of these changes, the cost of medical marijuana went up significantly for many patients, who now had to pay a standard state excise tax -- although they could avoid sales taxes. Additionally, the availability of high dosage, medical-grade marijuana products have been slow to come to market, which has frustrated patients even more. However, a big plus is that, with the new regulations, patients can now be assured that the products they're consuming have been lab tested.

Enter Medical Marijuana Consultants

While retail stores don't have to also sell medical marijuana, in order to serve this community, they have to secure an endorsement from the state -- and have at least one state-certified Medical Marijuana Consultant on staff.

This newly created professional distinction was the first and is still the only medical marijuana professional approved by a state department of health in the US. This certification requires 20-hours of education and 10-hours annually of continuing education to be re-certified, resulting in the highest standard for cannabis education in the country.

In response to these requirements, Seattle Central College launched its Cannabis Institute in partnership with the Academy of Cannabis Science in Spring 2016. Since coming online, we've provided a comprehensive cannabis education to hundreds of students, many of whom are working in cannabis shops around the state. While a store is only required to have one consultant on staff to comply with their endorsement, the comprehensive, science-based and expert-driven curriculum we provide has inspired entire stores to go through the certification process.

Many of our graduates have either entered the medical marijuana field, or they've moved up in the ranks in their retail stores as a result of becoming certified. But we've also been pleasantly surprised by how many non-professionals have enrolled in our program -- from caregivers to professionals such as nurses, designers, massage therapists, and chemists who want to learn how to work effectively with the cannabis industry as it builds its legal infrastructure.

Medical Marijuana by the Numbers

Here some statewide numbers one year after the new regulations took effect:

  • Total medical marijuana patient cards created: 23,327
    • Adult patient cards (age 18 and over): 21,465
    • Minor patient cards (under age 18): 124
    • Designated Provider cards: 1,738
  • Medically endorsed stores:
    • Active Stores: 191 (at least one consultant on staff registered to use the database)
    • Inactive Stores: 282
  • Medical marijuana consultant certifications:
    • Total applications received: 1,061
    • Number of ACTIVE certificates: 745
    • MMJ Consultants working in stores: 556

(Source: WA Department of Health, June 26, 2017)

More Changes on the Horizon

With the recent approval of SB 5131, more changes are coming to the industry. Here are a few of them:

  • Adult users can now share limited amounts of cannabis with other adults without the risk of arrest
  • Seeds and clones will soon be available for patients, solving the riddle of how to legally get started with a home grown crop
  • Advertising restrictions will mean no sign spinners on street corners and fewer pot leaves on billboards

Rules will need to be developed and adopted, but this should be a significant improvement.

While the laws we have regulating medical marijuana aren't perfect, they're a work in progress and can continue to be affected by concerned and engaged citizens.

If cannabis regulation is important to you, we encourage you to stay involved with what's coming up:

Overall, we're very grateful for the many partners and collaborators who have helped us contribute positively to Washington's growing cannabis industry. We're committed to offering expert-driven and science-based education, and to listening to the educational needs of students, patients, and the industry as a whole. We hope you'll join us in that mission.

Follow Trey Reckling:

Trey Reckling is the founder and operator of the Academy of Cannabis Science. He works in collaboration with Seattle Central College's Cannabis Institute to offer quality, science-based education to members of the burgeoning legal cannabis industry.