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Panel Examines Future of Medical Pot in Wash.

Elaine Thompson
Associated Press

As the proprietor of a medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Dawn Darington has seen patients wracked by AIDS and cancer. She's also seen "patients" who show up for a free pot brownie and never come back.

Now, Washington is pushing forward with plans to entice the latter into its new world of legal, taxed recreational pot, and advocates like Darington say they're worried about where that's going to leave those who actually need cannabis.A state work group on Monday is due to release its recommendations for how to regulate Washington's freewheeling medical marijuana industry — recommendations that could include reductions in how much pot patients can have, an end to the collective gardens that have supplied the sick and the not-so-sick for the past 15 years, stricter requirements for obtaining medical marijuana authorizations and taxes on medical pot.

"I'm terrified a bunch of that, if not all of it, is going to be lost — that the recreational users have thrown us under the bus," said Darington, of Choice Wellness Center. "When they put a tax on the sale of Viagra is the day I am willing to sit at the table and discuss putting a tax on this medicine."

Voters in Washington and Colorado last fall legalized marijuana for recreational use, and the states are preparing to allow its sale at licensed stores. In Colorado, medical marijuana is already regulated and subject to sales tax, with 109,000 registered patients, and it isn't clear to what extent it might undermine the recreational market.

But in Washington, lawmakers and state officials are concerned that licensed pot stores won't be able to compete with medical dispensaries selling unregulated, untaxed marijuana — thus cutting into the amount of tax revenue Washington makes from the sale of recreational pot.

Furthermore, the U.S. Justice Department has made clear that it while it will allow states to develop tight regulations for marijuana — regulations that address key federal law enforcement priorities, such as keeping legal pot away from kids and off the black market — it won't tolerate unregulated pot growing or sales. After the DOJ announced in August that it wouldn't sue Washington or Colorado to block their licensing plans, the Seattle and Spokane U.S. attorneys called Washington's medical marijuana system untenable, a clear warning that things needed to change.

Washington approved the medical use of marijuana in 1998, two years after California became the first state to do so. Twenty states and the District of Columbia now allow pot as medicine, and Washington's system is among the most lax, with no registration requirements for patients or oversight of the pot gardens and dispensaries that serve them.

State lawmakers this year directed the Liquor Control Board, Department of Health and Department of Revenue to form a work group and come up with recommendations for how medical and recreational marijuana might coexist. Documents prepared by the group and released to advocates under public records requests show that the officials have been considering ideas that include getting rid of medical marijuana entirely, thus forcing patients to buy taxed pot at licensed stores; requiring a higher burden of proof that a patient suffers from a qualifying ailment, as well as greater follow-up care by the medical professional who authorizes the pot use; and requiring that minors have parental permission before being authorized to use medical marijuana.

Alison Holcomb, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington lawyer who drafted the recreational marijuana law, said she expects the work group to recommend that any business wishing to conduct commercial marijuana transactions be required to obtain a license under Initiative 502, the recreational pot law.

That might effectively close most Washington medical marijuana dispensaries, which have proliferated even though they're not technically allowed under state law. The state Liquor Control Board, which is overseeing the implementation of I-502, has said it will issue 334 licenses for retail pot stores around the state, with 21 of them in Seattle — a city that has an estimated 200 medical marijuana dispensaries.

Holcomb also said she expects the work group to suggest that patients continue to be allowed to grow their own marijuana or designate someone else to do it for them. One big question, she said, is whether the recommendations will call for the end of collective gardens, where dispensaries serving hundreds or thousands of patients have grown a lot of pot, some of which has ended up on the black market.

Another question is whether the state might create a system that exempts patients from paying taxes, or at least requires them to pay lower taxes, at recreational marijuana stores. Such a system might require a patient registry — an idea that some medical marijuana advocates have warmed up to, after opposing it for years on the grounds that it would violate patient privacy and force them to admit to violations of federal law.

Ultimately, how to handle medical marijuana will fall to the Legislature, where two bills are already pending that would tax and regulate medical marijuana to varying degrees.

Ezra Eickmeyer, a lobbyist with the Washington Cannabis Association, said his group is supporting at least some of the legislative efforts and looking forward to seeing the work group's recommendations.

"Nobody who is reasonable or credible will deny there is fraud taking place in the medical marijuana system as it exists now," he said.