Another shot at pot: Lawmakers prepare marijuana follow-up bills

By Cooper Inveen, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Two years after Washington voters legalized marijuana, lawmakers are wading through a thicket of proposed reforms that aim to stabilize an industry still struggling to get off the ground.

“Right now I call it the wild, wild west,” said Senate Democratic leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, during Thursday’s annual Associated Press legislative preview. “We’ve got incongruities in this law that we need to solve.”

With seven new cannabis-related bills filed so far come seven opportunities to shape Washington’s cannabis environment. From a complete overhaul of medical marijuana to giving those charged with misdemeanor pot crimes a chance at a clean slate, little related to the marijuana issue seems to be off the table.

The possible impacts range from subtle to sweeping. For starters, senators Brian Hatfield, D-Pacific County, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, teamed up to sponsor Senate Bill (SB) 5003, which would raise the excise tax on cannabis from 25 to 26 percent. Hatfield also co-sponsored SB 5012 with Senator Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, in order to kick-start Washington’s hemp industry by giving Washington State University researchers an August 2016 deadline to determine if and how such an industry could be properly established.

One of the larger challenges the Legislature may face is finding a balance between a fully state-regulated retail system and the medical marijuana industry.

“The most important thing is to come up with a legally sanctioned, safe system for medical marijuana users,” Governor Jay Inslee said during Thursday’s preview.

Senators Rivers and Hatfield have outlined their solution in SB 5052, which would restrict medical dispensaries to selling edibles and marijuana concentrates. Only the retail system would be allowed to sell smokeable products.

However, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, plans to file a bill which would fold the medical marijuana system into the I-502 structure, cut taxes and allow consumers to grow up to six personal plants.

Inslee noted that he is open to aspects of both bills and that he will be working with their sponsors and other lawmakers to find the best solution between them.

A bill co-sponsored last year by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, has been given second life and is to be reintroduced during this session as well. House Bill (HB) 1020, dubbed the “Ric Smith Memorial Act,” prohibits medical professionals from considering a patient’s use of medical cannabis when determining their eligibility for an organ transplant.

The bill is named for the Seattle pot activist who died in 2012 from kidney dialysis complications after doctors denied his request for a transplant, unsure of how his heavy marijuana consumption would impact the success of the procedure.

The Ric Smith Memorial Act would also protect medical patients from being evicted from their homes because of their cannabis use, particularly if the property owner already permits tobacco use on site.

SB 5002, also sponsored by Rivers, aims to stop stoned driving by making it a traffic infraction to drive if there is an unsealed container of cannabis present in the car, whether it’s the driver’s or not. The law would require cannabis to be in a sealed container with an unbroken seal.

Those with pre-existing marijuana misdemeanors could get some relief if HB 1041 is enacted, which would allow for individuals to apply to have those convictions wiped from their records, as long as they were over the age of 21 when the offense was committed.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, is sponsoring the bill after his attempt to pass similar legislation last year failed to make it to the House floor.

Regardless of the bills’ eventual outcomes, one thing remains clear through the smoke: Washington legislators won’t be able to make it through the 2015 session without a little weed on their plates.

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