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The Washington State Marijuana Conundrum

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Washington State is swirling in a Marijuana Conundrum. In November of 2012 Washington State voters approved Initiative 502, which provides for the legal recreational use of marijuana. Never mind that the federal government calls it a controlled substance, an illegal drug. Pay no attention to the recent problems of nearby Montana with  medical marijuana dispensary crackdowns by the Feds. Washington voters—supported by high-profile personalities including Rick Steves of the same travel empire— and police chiefs and local citizens of many ages blatantly legalized a federally recognized illegal substance. The war is on and it is questionable who will win. Washington State is betting they will.

The reality in Washington State since 1999 has been the availability of marijuana and derivative products to those with a medical marijuana recommendation, commonly called a card or license. This is the same grey area Washington shares with 16 other states. The process to obtain a card is not all that straightforward.

Mainstream medical doctors will not prescribe or issue marijuana cards to their patients, even those with whom they have had a long-term relationship. Those authorized to recommend medical marijuana (cannabis) include: a doctor, physician assistant, advanced registered nurse practitioner, osteopath or naturopath. Naturopathic physicians are more likely to prescribe and you can find their ads in obsequious places including the Little Nickel Want Ads. The ads contain a phone number which may service multiple locations.

Sun Leaf Medical Center, which services Bellingham ( in Whatcom County, considerably north of Seattle) and Kent (in southern King County, just south of Seattle)  claims to “specialize in helping all qualified patients in the state of Washington exercise their right to use medical marijuana as an alternative treatment to their condition(s).” Three doctors are listed by name on their website, plus they claim to have a patient base of over 5,000 patients in Washington State.

For all the claims of legitimacy, the process of obtaining a card for medical marijuana feels a bit shady. In Bellingham the doctor’s office is on an upper floor of a semi-vacant  downtown landmark building . Office hours are in the evening. The exterior building doors are locked, with young tattooed men minding the doors from the inside when you approach. Upon entering the building you take the elevator to the 4th floor, proceed down a dingy hallway, round a corner and find a small room with perhaps 6 chairs with clients spilling out into the hallway. It seems all have been given a close-to-identical appointment time, which turns out to be nowhere close to the actual time you will see the doctor for your personal consult. In short it is subdued madness.

When your name is called you present your case to the doctor in a small private room, armed with your medical records. He thoughtfully considers. He asks questions about treatments you have tried. You have no initial indication whether he believes you qualify for a medical marijuana license or not. Perhaps you squirm. You surely wonder how your condition compares to the others with whom you have been sitting  in the waiting room.

Who is in the waiting room? It is a mixed crowd of ages 20-80. It is adults with canes, walkers, and the occasional wheelchair. It is twenty-something’s who look very nervous. It’s fifty-something housewives. It’s sixty-something men with bad coughs. It is adults seeking some alternative form of pain relief to manage chronic conditions that traditional medicine has not resolved. It is adults that are patiently waiting, sitting in a very small room on a hot evening with poor ventilation wondering whether they will be approved. Whether they will be deemed worthy of a card that will enable them to purchase up to 24 ounces of marijuana, and to grow fifteen plants.  Patients will pay nearly $200 for a one year recommendation.

If you are approved for a card you might expect the prescribing doctor to offer advice as to where you can make your purchases. You would be incorrect. You must be a minor detective to find the sales locations, known as dispensaries or collective gardens. On the web google Weed Maps. The law only allows qualifying patients and designated providers to possess medical marijuana; the law allows qualifying patients and designated providers to participate in collective gardens, not to purchase said products. Therefore no list will be handed out with your card as providers distance themselves from the legal tangle. Watch for a green cross on a white background as signage.

But retail establishments known as dispensaries do exist inside and outside city limits depending on the tolerance and courage of local officials. Sales are made to qualified buyers and documents are carefully examined. In the sales rooms fluorescent-lit glass cases display up to fifteen strains of marijuana available for purchase by the ounce. One case may display edibles including cookies, brownies, infused jams, honey, and popcorn. The divide between legal and illegal is a wide gulf as you roam the aisles of the marijuana supermarket. You may find yourself shaking your head in disbelief as the scene is nearly other-worldly.

Occasionally the Feds raid dispensaries. Some owners are arrested. Operations are shut down. But in general the dispensaries, or collective gardens, or whatever you will call them, are being left alone by police including the Feds. It is very confusing.

The new Washington State law legalizing marijuana for recreational use will be implemented in a year. Medical Marijuana will remain a separate category. Product for recreational use will be sold in state stores–officials are working out the details at present. And yet Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and in 33 states.

Reuters news reports “that image-conscious regulators in Washington State think the cannabis-leaf logo designed for state-licensed pot merchandise conveys the wrong impression of the Evergreen State. Dropping the marijuana leaf as an official state symbol is one of several changes contained in the latest draft of measures proposed by a three-member panel devising new regulations for the state’s nascent marijuana industry.”

Is it any wonder we all feel a bit confused?

For an overview state by state:

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Category: Indie It Blog

About the Author: Ann Bodle-Nash: A free-lance traveler since the age of 11 months, little moss grows on her soles. With relatives and friends scattered across the globe, she finds frequent excuses to travel. But travel in the West is best--those quiet corners of weirdness are like light to a moth, burning with intensity, encouraging curiosity and discovery. She imagines the glory of 30 days of continuous floating and fly fishing on the Yellowstone River after watching a documentary on same. Currently living in Washington State with her husband.

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