Legislation aimed at bringing Washington State’s largely unregulated medical marijuana system under state control, which state officials have said is crucial to maintaining order as the legalized sale of recreational marijuana begins this year, died late Thursday night without a vote as the House and Senate adjourned.
“I’m taken aback,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, after the Legislature concluded its regular session for the year with the legislation still on the calendar. “Many people at the last moment apparently did not want a bill.”
Many medical marijuana dispensaries and patients had opposed the new regulations, fearing that their system could be crushed by the commercial market and intrusive government oversight. But sponsors and supporters said the regulations would protect patients by giving them greater assurance of access to the medicinal strains they want, and by possibly reducing the risk of federal prosecution. The United States Justice Department has said it will allow a legal marijuana marketplace, approved by voters here and in Colorado in 2012, only if is it tightly regulated by the states.
Ultimately, however, the bill, a version of which has passed in the Senate, died in the House in a fight over taxes. Some lawmakers, led by Republicans, wanted to amend the bill to distribute more of the anticipated revenue from marijuana sales from the state to local governments.
Another last-day amendment would have essentially thrown medical sales into the recreational stores with little or no special provision for medical users. Retail recreational sale is expected to begin here in June.
As the fight raged, a trade group representing mainly medical marijuana interests, the Washington Cannabis Association, persuaded enough lawmakers to stop passage and hope for a better bill next year. The law that legalized sale of recreational marijuana, known as I-502, also includes language that makes it hard for the Legislature to amend, requiring a two-thirds majority, at least this year.
“Everybody said, ‘We’ll take our chances for the next year without a change in law,’ ” said Ezra Eickmeyer, the association’s political director.
A leading sponsor of the regulation bill, 5887, Senator Ann Rivers, a Republican, said the opponents’ victory in killing her bill might be a Pyrrhic one. “Fear is a powerful motivating factor, and they felt like 5887 was something that we were doing to them instead of for them,” Ms. Rivers said, referring to medical marijuana users and dispensary owners. “The reality is we can’t do nothing; we must do something.”
She said she feared that a simple majority next year might pass a law that those opponents would like even less than the bill that died.
One of the lawmakers who backed an expanded revenue-sharing system as part of the regulatory bill, Representative Cary Condotta, a Republican, said he thought it came down to fairness. A wave of resistance to marijuana businesses in some rural and more conservative parts of the state, he said, is partly about the worries that local governments could face higher costs in overseeing or policing marijuana, without getting much help from the state. He said he would continue that fight next year.
The Legislature is not scheduled to return until next year, unless called back into special session by the governor.