October 23, 2013 / 5:50 PM / 4 years ago

Washington state floats stricter controls on lightly regulated medical pot

OLYMPIA, Wash., Oct 23 (Reuters) - Washington state is considering imposing heavy taxes and stricter controls on medical marijuana as it seeks to create a single market that backers say will help ensure the viability of its nascent recreational pot industry.

Medical marijuana advocates expressed outrage over the proposal, arguing it would leave many patients who use the drug to manage chronic pain or other ailments unable to afford it and effectively eliminate from the market pot varieties that are less high-inducing but more effective as pain relievers.

"Having one market is essential to a well-regulated, well-taxed, organized system, which was the promise of the initiative as well as consistent with the history of medical marijuana in the state," said Washington state Representative Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who supports the proposed changes.

Washington state and Colorado last year became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, even as the drug remains illegal under federal law, and plan to have recreational marijuana stores open in 2014. Some 20 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana.

The draft recommendations released this week by officials from three Washington state agencies would place the same 75 percent excise tax on medical marijuana that is planned for recreational-use weed, though it would exempt medical pot from state and local sales and use taxes, which average about 10 percent.

It would also require medical pot users to register with the state and require medical dispensaries, which at present operate in a gray area of the law, to obtain state licenses.

In addition to reducing the amount of pot that a medical patient can possess from 24 ounces to 3 ounces, the recommendations would also eliminate the right of medical users to grow their own marijuana. Under current rules, patients may grow up to 15 pot plants at a time.

"This is a disaster," said Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle-based medical marijuana activist and criminal defense attorney. "They're throwing medical patients under the bus."

Proponents for the changes counter that untaxed or lightly taxed medical pot, left unchecked, would damage the recreational-use market by capturing the heavy users who account for the lion's share of consumption.

They also point out that Seattle-based U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan made clear her position in a memo in August that the current medical-pot system in Washington state is "untenable."

The final recommendations will be presented to state lawmakers in January to serve as a starting point for future legislation, Carlyle said, adding that it is too soon to know whether lawmakers will act on the issue next year.

"It's much more important to get it right than to do it quickly," he said.

Alison Holcomb, who authored the ballot initiative and led the campaign to legalize recreational-use marijuana in Washington state last year, said she was comfortable with the proposed changes, except for prohibiting patients from growing their own supply.

"That's an unnecessary restriction," Holcomb said. "If we're going to have a mandatory registry for patients and designated providers, why is it necessary to eliminate patients' ability to have a sufficient supply of marijuana?" (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jackie Frank)

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