The latest iterations of two Washington State marijuana bills were heard in committee on Tuesday as sponsors renewed past efforts to limit high-THC cannabis products and legalize home cultivation of plants for personal use—policies that have been repeatedly proposed but consistently failed to be enacted in recent years.
Representatives on the House Regulated Substances and Gaming Committee considered both measures at the hearing, taking testimony from sponsors as well as the public, but did not act on either measure. The panel also took testimony on a third marijuana-related bill, which would have regulators create a data dashboard that would track use as well as enforcement trends involving Liquor and Cannabis Board licensees.
Supporters of both the homegrow and the THC-limit proposals insisted that changes since Washington voters legalized marijuana in 2012 mean the time has come to pass their bills.
Rep. Lauren Davis (D)—whose HB 2320 would limit sales of products with more than 35 percent THC to only adults 25 and older—told colleagues that the “cannabis that we have that’s sold today is an entirely different drug than the cannabis plant that voters legalized in 2012.”
“At the time, the black market potency was less than 10 percent in the state of Washington,” she claimed. “Today it’s up to 99 percent potency. When you have a different drug, you have different health impacts—especially a drug with a tenfold potency increase.”
Rep. Shelley Kloba (D)—whose HB 2194 would remove felony criminal charges around home cannabis cultivation and allow adults to grow up to six plants—emphasized that as more and more states have legalized marijuana in the past decade, Washington has emerged as an outlier in prohibiting homegrow.
“The fact remains, it is still a Class C felony to possess this in plant form,” said Kloba. “Hopefully we can make some headway this year.”
Versions of both proposals have been bandied about for years in Olympia, but neither has managed to get enough traction to reach a full chamber vote.
“This is the fifth legislative session that I have been working to address this issue of the public health harms of high-potency cannabis products,” Davis said at the hearing. She initially introduced legislation in 2020 that would have capped cannabis concentrates at 10 percent THC, but that proposal failed to make it out of committee.
Efforts to allow personal cultivation, meanwhile, predate Kloba’s 2017 election to the legislature, stretching back at least to 2015. She joked at the committee hearing that the latest bill “may sound a little bit familiar” to the committee where a similar proposal from last year started out.
The bulk of the hearing consisted of testimony from members of the public. Aside from sponsors who spoke in support, questions and comments from members were limited and often focused on hypotheticals.
Rep. Kristine Reeves (D), who had a number of critical questions about the cultivation proposal, asked whether a neighborhood or housing development might cause water quality issues if a large proportion of residents there decided to grow marijuana. “I can envision a situation in which I’ve now developed a housing community where each house in that community has six plants,” she said. “Do I need to be thinking about water runoff, water quality, environmental quality?”
She asked further whether the bill contemplated the disposal of harvested cannabis plants, an issue the measure’s text doesn’t speak to.
When one public commenter suggested that plant refuse could be considered garden waste, because that “is what it is,” Reeves replied: “I don’t know if you’re helping your argument with that correlation, thank you.”
Reeves also questioned whether legalizing home cultivation would in fact help Black and brown residents, as supporters of the bill suggested it would. “There’s a lot of things that are legal but don’t minimize Black interaction with law enforcement,” she said. “Actually, sitting in line at Taco Bell has resulted in Black people’s deaths. Standing outside of a grocery store smoking a cigarette has resulted in Black people’s deaths.”
Kloba and others who spoke in the bill’s defense said it stands to reason that fewer people overall would have interactions with law enforcement if home marijuana cultivation were legalized, which would likely reduce criminal consequences for Black and brown people, at least in absolute terms. But they acknowledged that even as cannabis arrests have dropped across the board since legalization, racial disparities in enforcement have remained.
Another lawmaker, Rep. Greg Cheney (R), asked proponents for “a price estimate of what a single plant would be worth, kind of on the open market…if you were to sell it.”
“We’re not gonna sell it,” responded Don Skakie, a founder of the group Homegrow Washington, which has long supported expanding the state’s law to include provisions for home cultivation.
In terms of public commenters, speakers overwhelmingly supported the change, with only one taking a position against the proposal, complaining the bill “provides absolutely no limitations for where cannabis can be grown.”
Most—including longtime activists, industry members and concerned citizens—said the change would allow consumers and hobbyists to come to better understand the plant, ensure specific products can be grown without pesticides and enjoy access to the botanical form of a plant the state already allows to be sold as processed, ready-to-use products. Some also cited evidence that a sizable portion of Washington’s marijuana products have included banned pesticides, a problem they said has increased in recent years.
One person who spoke during public comment was Pete Holmes, the former Democratic city attorney of Seattle, who helped lead municipal reform around marijuana possession in that city and later backed the ballot push for statewide legalization.
“I want to emphasize that when you’re the first in the country to confront prohibition, there are a lot of unknowns,” Holmes said, “and as a primary sponsor of I-502 back in 2011, I can tell you that we struggled with home grows. It was left out initially of 502 because we wanted to understand better the viability of a newly legal but heavily regulated and taxed cannabis industry.”
“It has since become clear that Washington consumers deserve the right to grow your own for personal use,” he continued, “as many of the states that legalized in the past decade after Washington have already done.”
Like other speakers, Holmes noted the change would make policies more like those around alcohol, under which making many intoxicating products at home is allowed.
“Alcohol consumers already enjoy the right, if they want, to brew their own beer and ferment their own wine,” he said, “but most choose to go with commercial products, and we think the same thing will happen with the Washington cannabis industry. It’s long past time to remove this Class C felony, and I urge you to vote this out of committee.”
A law enforcement representative, Taylor Gardner, deputy policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the group took no formal position on the bill. But she encouraged lawmakers to reconsider provisions included in Kloba’s earlier bill last year, such as requiring safe storage of cannabis, mandating plants be labeled and prohibiting cultivation that could be seen or smelled from off the property.
“Safety is our ultimate focus,” Gardner said.
The home cultivation measure is scheduled for a vote in the panel on Monday.
Regarding Davis’s THC-limit bill, public comment was more divided. Some pediatricians and other health care providers said they supported the proposal because of evidence that high-THC cannabis use has been associated with certain mental health conditions, such as psychosis. Others warned that going down the path of prohibiting products like many vape cartridges or concentrates, the change would move consumers back toward the illicit market.
“Most harms from drugs come from the war on drugs and the policies that we’ve created in response to them, and this is just a continuation of that same policy,” said Micah Sherman, owner and operations manager at the cannabis company Raven. “It hasn’t learned anything from the decades of failure of those policies, and it isn’t something that’s going to move us forward and bring solutions to the potentially real issue of how do we handle, you know, a new era of legal cannabis.”
The bill in its current form would limit the sale of products with more than 35 percent THC, restricting those products only to people 25 and older unless they were a qualifying medical patient or caretaker. It would also require the state Department of Health to require optional training for cannabis retail staff about the dangers of high-THC products, and it would require the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute to develop guidance around people at risk of developing serious complications from cannabis use.
The bill’s findings section, citing a researcher from that institute, says that concentrated products are “as close to the cannabis plant as strawberries are to frosted strawberry pop tarts.”
“This is a case where an addiction-for-profit industry has outpaced public policy,” Davis said in a release about the bill. “It is our duty as lawmakers to learn from history and not repeat it. We must act now to protect public health. It is past time.”
Her Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Tom Dent, said in a statement: “The cannabis industry has changed considerably since cannabis was legalized. This legislation is needed to address the everchanging market and put some measures in place to protect cannabis users and our youth.”
The THC bill is set to get a vote in the committee next Thursday.
Because time was limited amid public comment on the homegrow and THC-limit proposals, the House committee held off on considering two other scheduled marijuana-related proposals: one (HB 1341) that would allow out-of-state ownership of cannabis business licenses and another that was set for executive action (HB 1650) that would require voter approval for a local government to ban marijuana businesses.
Another recently introduced cannabis bill in Washington would roll back recently enacted protections for job applicants who use marijuana, undoing the anti-discrimination protections for people seeking to work in the drug treatment industry.
Lawmakers have also introduced legislation to create a legal system to allow veterans and first responders to access psychedelic-assisted therapy. The measure would build on a limited pilot program signed into law last year.
The psychedelics legislation comes as grassroots efforts across the state seek to decriminalize entheogens at the local level by deprioritizing enforcement of state laws against the substances. Organizers in at least six Washington cities are working to enact the reform, which they also see as a way to build support for state-level change.
Late last year, the state Department of Commerce issued recommendations regarding how $200 million should be spent to address racial, economic and social disparities created by the war on drugs. The state has also approved $10 million in refunds for vacated drug convictions.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
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