Caution: Approaching Legislative Vehicles

State Medical Cannabis tax revenues July 2013- November 2014. Source: Washington Department of Revenue
State Medical Cannabis tax revenues July 2013- November 2014. Source: Washington Department of Revenue

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

NOTE: this excerpt is from a work in progress, as indicated by the first paragraph. We will adjust our analysis going forward, without a doubt.

This post addresses a section of the retail chapter that is a recently discovered blind spot, and for which we have just begun to re-envision, through focused archival research and a few phone calls out. Until recently, Dr. Corva has understood SB 5052, the Rivers vehicle that ended “parallel” cannabis systems as of July 1, 2016, as coming a bit out of the blue due to Senate capture by Republicans in November 2015. In fact neither parts of that narrative are true, although they aren’t completely false either. This post provides a starting point for revising that history, that will be developed completely in the book.

First, let’s start with why it matters. The approximately biannual (because in Washington, bills have a two year life-cycle) tradition of Senator Kohl-Welles’ amendments to RCW 69.51.A since the 00s produced amendments in 2007 and 2010, but generally those amendments were aimed at increasing and/or improving patient access. For example, the 2010 amendment that liberalized authority to write authorizations may have had a great deal to do with the explosion of retail access points, in two ways. First, authorized patients were necessary for medical access points to function in compliance with State law, and now there could be a lot more of them. And second, for collective gardeners (some of whom were vertically integrated into retail spots), there was a surge of demand through less underground “off the street” outlets. Patients could be authorized to grow their own, but that didn’t mean they had the skill, time, or inclination to do so.

Senator Kohl-Welles’ 2011 bill, SB 5073, was a comprehensive reform of the Medical Cannabis legislation in that it sought to improve through regulating the increased and improved patient access to which her previous efforts contributed. There were a LOT of other factors, and it’s impossible to say what percentage each contributed, but here are a few: the election of “choom gang” veteran Obama to the presidency; the financial crisis that had most of our country trying to figure out how to pay mortgages and bills; the Ogden Memo and its successor Federal memos of which the Cole Memo is only the most recent and clearly spelled out; the bankruptcy of State and local budgets including for law enforcement against a plant; the widespread availability of information on how to grow cannabis on the internet; the completion of years-long prosecutions in favor of Medical Marijuana defendants that set a more liberalized precedent; and so forth. If not perfect, it was a hell of a storm for evolving social and policy conditions. And our subjects, along with many others, certainly found those conditions amenable to choosing Medical Cannabis livelihoods.

Certainly, the choices made by more and more people to practice civil disobedience against a racist, unjust and genocidal Federal prohibition meant more and more storefronts becoming visible in the landscape. They not only served a burgeoning number of authorized patients: they channelled cannabis markets off the streets and into a space of visibility that itself may have served to discipline violence associated with street corner dealing and turf warfare. They served to employ an army of unemployable people in the middle of the greatest financial crisis of our lifetime. In the book, we go into more detail about the social benefits of visible access points and the commercialization of domestic sinsemilla. But the point of this paragraph is to highlight the social conditions that, indisputably, made cannabis markets much more visible to policymakers and the public.

But prohibition culture did not recede as rapidly as the post-prohibition economy. Some lawmakers chose the old fashioned response to “seeing cannabis like a prohibition State” (see anthropologist James Scott on “seeing like a State“). Cannabis could be tolerated as long as it remained in the social closet, but the emergence of retail access points in the urban landscape began to promote a politics of “moral panic” that joined with other political currents (I 502 being one of them) to demand something be done. Senator Kohl-Welles SB 5073 caught the State legislature at a moment when the politics of regulation were just beginning to sort themselves out, when those politics could only be framed in terms of reforming the current system rather than attempting to re-create it via not just “recreational” law (I 502, one year later) but the subsumption of Medical into a Recreational legal framework (5052, four years later).

What seems clear is that SB 5073 represented a reformist turn for Senator Kohl-Welles, for which the legislature was ready (but not the Governor); that the Medical Cannabis community had started to go its own way via Representative Appleton in a “improve patient access” vehicle that went nowhere but siphoned energy from the previously unified Kohl-Welles Medical Cannabis front; and that power in the State legislature shifted away from Democrats (and therefore towards Republican lobbyist-recently-turned Senator Ann Rivers. Legislative focus shifted definitively away from “increasing patient access” towards “regulating patient access,” ostensibly in order to “improve patient access” via quality control.

At this point it is obligatory to state that the objective of improving patient access via quality control was always necessary and could have been a focus of legislative energy starting in 1998. It’s not the basic meaning of the discourse that became a point of major social conflict, it’s how the discourse was mobilized in a way that could not improve patient access because it was busy tearing up the access system that had evolved organically over 15 years, through Senator Ann Rivers.

In 2013, Rivers successfully killed Kohl-Welles’ efforts to resurrect SB 5073 and introduced her own vehicle, SB 5887, that definitively shifted how Medical Cannabis would be handled in the legislature right through to 5052’s radical re-writing of what it meant, legally, in Washington State. SB 5887 was introduced late in the 2013 session and re-introduced for the biennial 2014 session, when most of the legislative work that ultimately proved futile was done. It died when revenue sharing disagreements in the context of the ongoing State budget crisis proved irreconcilable. The end of the two-year legislative cycle meant that legislative reform efforts would begin again in 2015 with a clean slate.

Senator Rivers’ majority party advantage established through the “Majority Caucus Coalition” formed with two renegade Democrats 2012 was cemented by the November 2014 elections, when Republicans gained an outright majority. Any cannabis legislative vehicle would have to go through her, and thus the 2015 session began with a radical one: SB 5052. It was economically radical because it sought to re-create cannabis markets in Washington State, rather than align the old with the new via regulation; it was politically radical because it accepted no input or amendment from the political representatives and stakeholders that had been increasing and improving patient access since 1998; and it was culturally radical in that it relied on a campaign of “moral panic” to characterize the Medical Cannabis policy experiment in Washington State a total failure because Medical Cannabis people were “Bad Actors” creating a “Wild West,” “unruly,” and “out of control” environment. Collective gardens were unredeemably greedy, patients were 90% fakers and gamers of the system, and so forth. The only verifiable fact associated with this discourse was that yes, the State could finally begin to see Cannabis culture out of the closet and, over more than 20 years, totally invested in Medical Cannabis in all its definitions, and these just weren’t the people it wanted to regulate. Well, maybe some of them — but just a few.

 

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