Does Legalization Affect Medical Marijuana? The Lesson of Washington

Washington Flag

This election, there are five states voting on marijuana legalization. They are all states with existing medical marijuana programs.

Marijuana States of America
Depending on what you consider a “medical marijuana state”, that is…

Some in the medical marijuana community are fighting to defeat these legalization measures. Many of them cite the example of Washington State as a lesson for what happens to medical marijuana in the wake of legalization.

Washington’s medical marijuana system has, indeed, been decimated. The legislature passed new laws in an effort to merge the medical and recreational marijuana programs into one inclusive system. The result has been the shuttering of hundreds of dispensaries, which had never been authorized under Washington law, but had been tolerated in most circumstances.

In addition, the legislature reduced the possession and cultivation limits for patients, instituted stricter standards for acquiring a card, and felonized any sort of public cannabis clubs that allow onsite consumption.

So medical opponents of legalization use Washington as the nightmare scenario to frighten patients in other states into voting against ending their own criminal status – remember, medical marijuana is not legal, it is merely an affirmative defense in court to the still-existing crimes that patients and caregivers commit with marijuana.

The problem is that these folks have completely mis-interpreted the situation.

Washington Marijuana Prices
Even with the worst legalization law (no home grow, per se DUID, 40 gram possession felony, 37% taxation), Washington’s legal marijuana costs far less than medical marijuana in the five states voting on legalization. (Image: Washington Post)

The lesson of Washington is not “legalization kills medical marijuana”.

The lesson of Washington is “get your medical marijuana regulated before you legalize”.

What happened in Washington was the result of putting a well-regulated, strictly controlled, highly-taxed recreational system alongside an unregulated, easily-accessed, tax-free medical system.

In that scenario, there would have been recreational operators forced to comply with regulations, inspections, testing, and taxation that would have increased their overhead costs and, thus, the price of their product. The medical operators would not have those additional costs, so their costs would have been far lower.

Since Washington had the most-lax standards for acquiring a medical marijuana card aside from California, that would have meant that most of the regular marijuana consumers would have just gotten their “tax-free weed” card, further depressing the business on the recreational side and limiting the tax revenues from legalization.

California learned from that lesson. Their legislature rushed to get statewide marijuana regulations in place before what they knew would be an inevitably successful push for legalization in 2016.

Prop 64’s authors learned that lesson, too. They could not modify Prop 215’s any-condition-from-cancer-to-hangnail standards for acquiring a card without huge political sacrifices that probably would have sunk the initiative. So they applied the marijuana taxes to all consumers, medical and recreational, eliminating the no tax-avoidance incentive for regular consumers.

I find it immoral to tax sick people’s medicine. But it is not as immoral as continuing the prohibition that devastates thousands of lives and keeps the price of that medicine far higher than it should be.

I can't imagine why anybody would want to vote to keep marijuana growing and selling felonies in place.
I can’t imagine why anybody would want to vote to keep marijuana growing and selling felonies in place.

The only places where the recreational / medical issue could be a problem are the early-adopting medical states where there are established dispensary systems, home cultivation rights, and/or more easily-obtained cards. Those states have already legalized (WA, OR, CO) or are about to (CA), leaving only Michigan as one that fits these criteria.

The later-adopted medical marijuana laws back East, in states like Massachusetts and Maine, are very strict systems that shouldn’t face this problem. The well-regulated Western states like Arizona and Nevada, shouldn’t have to deal with this issue, either.

Finally, in the big picture / long view, legalization inevitably means the end of medical marijuana someday. Why did we make medical marijuana laws? Because we needed to protect the patients from arrests under prohibition. So if we are successful in ending that prohibition and improving our legalization to the degree that any amount of marijuana and cannabis plants the sickest, neediest patient requires are legal, what would we need to be protecting them from?

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 191 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Russ Belville Show - The Voice of the Marijuana Nation, a two-hour live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on RadicalRuss.com (learn more on our Podcast page).  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 50 North American cities.