Washington: Study Says Licensed Grows Can Meet Recreational, Medical Marijuana Needs

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By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

A new study released on Thursday performed for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board by the University of Washington supposedly shows that the amount of marijuana allowed to be grown by state-licensed I-502 producers in the state "is enough to satisfy both the medical and recreational marijuana markets," while ignoring the challenges of price, pesticides, and access which I-502 stores present for patients.

The study, "Estimating Canopy Size for the Washington Medical Marijuana Market," seems tailor-made to be used as political ammunition in the fight led by many I-502 recreational cannabis merchants to finish the shutting-down of Washington's medical marijuana community, which is already slated for extinction, at least as we know it, on July 1. After that date, any medical marijuana dispensaries which don't have an I-502 license will be required to shut down under penalty of law.

It would be a mistake to miss the drift, here. Saying that licensed I-502 growers can produce all the marijuana needed by Washington state medical marijuana patients is just about a half-step, politically, away from some politician, likely with fat I-502 contributions in the coffers, making another try to shut down home grow by medicinal cannabis patients in next year's session of the Legislature.

Once you've been defined as "unnecessary" in the supply chain -- even though you're growing your own medicine in exactly the way that works best for you, and probably a strain you can't find easily, or at all, in a recreational marijuana store -- it seems it's only a matter of time before I-502 merchants and their pet politicians in Olympia want their greedy little hands on every cent of your cannabis budget. Never mind growing your own; that bad for profits!

Unfortunately, the farmers' market model, which has proven to be the best method of safe access for many patients, is being entirely shut down; no such arrangement is possible under the overly restrictive rules surrounding I-502, which seem obviously designed to choke off the competition represented by medical marijuana outlets. Many patients prefer farmers' markets, where they can buy directly from the grower and learn exactly what medicinal properties the strain has, how it was grown, what nutrients were used, and whether organic methods were employed -- which can be crucial if you happen to have a compromised immune system or liver function.

The state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) tasked the UW-based Cannabis Law and Policy Project (CLPP) with calculating the “grow canopy,” or square footage, required to supply the state’s medical marijuana market as it becomes "folded into" (read "taken over by") the state’s retail system, as required by 2015's ironically, nay cruelly, titled "Cannabis Patient Protection Act," the execrable SB 5052, which effectively shuts down medical marijuana access in the state come July 1

The UW report estimates that between 1.7 and 2 million square feet — or the equivalent of 30 to 34 football fields — of plants is needed to satisfy the medical marijuana market, and concludes that the 12.3 million square feet of canopy currently approved by the LCB is enough to supply the state’s total marijuana market.

What those numbers don't tell you -- and what makes all this analysis inaccurate to the point of being sinister -- is that the "12.3 million square feet of canopy" means nothing to patients who require very specialized, boutique-grown, babied-to-the-max strains with very specific medicinal effects and cannabinoid profiles. Many of these medicinal strains aren't of any particular interest to recreational marijuana customers, and thus are of even less interest to I-502 proprietors who, like businesspeople everywhere, are primarily interested in the bottom line and "aren't operating a charity" or a medical facility.

Medical marijuana dispensaries must either obtain a state license or close by July 1. Of the 343 retail stores licensed by the LCB, about 81 percent have sought endorsements to their license to sell marijuana to authorized medical patients. But what the LCB didn't include in their Thursday press release, which mentioned those numbers, is the sad fact that almost none of Seattle's flagship, well-run medical marijuana operations were able to actually get a license to continue operating in the city.

“It was important to design this study the right way and engage in careful empirical research reaching out directly to medical dispensaries and growers across the state,” said Sean O’Connor, principal investigator for the report, CLPP faculty director and Boeing International Professor at UW Law.

CLPP Executive Director Sam Mendez described the survey process: “There’s no master list of these dispensaries, so we used a variety of resources to identify as many as possible. Once the survey was complete, we applied the findings to other published research regarding averages of marijuana output per square foot, outdoor and indoor growing market share and amounts used for edibles and concentrates to reach our estimates.”

The report found that:

• There were an estimated 273 medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington in January 2016
• Dispensaries sell an average of 9.55 pounds of marijuana flower monthly
• The average price of marijuana per gram sold by these dispensaries is less than $10 (fixed income patients are going to experience hardship, because this price structure is going away with the death of medical dispensaries)
• Marijuana flower comprises 60 percent of sales at dispensaries, followed by concentrates (22 percent) and edibles (18 percent)
• The potential market value based on 10 million square feet of canopy is more than $8 billion

Study Methodology

Determining the size of Washington’s medical marijuana market was no easy task for the UW team, since dispensaries and collective gardens have gone mostly unregulated until recently -- not through any fault of their own, but through the political cowardice of former Gov. Christine Gregoire, who line item vetoed most of a bill which would have done exactly that.

The UW researchers, which included five law students, started by compiling a list of possible Washington dispensaries using the databases of three websites — Leafly.com, Weedmaps.com and Headshopfinder.com — among other sources. They came up with 467 possible contacts and called them for phone surveys in January and February 2016.

Interviewees were asked whether the dispensary grows its own marijuana, how much marijuana it sells, the average price of various products and what proportion of sales are flower, edibles, tinctures and concentrates, among other questions. Some refused to participate. Others did not appear to be affiliated with a dispensary or seemed to be out of business.

The researchers also posted an online survey, sending it to all applicants for recreational marijuana retail licenses and promoting it widely through social media. All told, they found 273 likely dispensaries.

A report released in December 2015 by BOTEC Analysis Corp. estimated that the state’s marijuana market is divided roughly into thirds for medical, recreational and illicit use. Since February 2014, as an interim policy, the LCB has restricted marijuana producers to a single license. That decision will later be put into rule.

The Cannabis Law and Policy Project was launched in 2014 "to provide thoughtful leadership on the responsible development of recreational and medical marijuana industries in Washington State and across the country." The group, which is based in the UW School of Law, but draws on experts in various other departments, focuses on advising the state on regulatory issues related to marijuana, and some cynics have noted they are extremely good at giving the appearance of scientific precision by finding numbers which justify existing policies, while blithely ignoring factors such as patient suffering, economic pressure through increased prices, and health challenges due to the unmonitored presence of pesticides in I-502 marijuana, which result from these same policies.

The report’s lead authors are O’Connor and Mendez, with contributing law student authors Ada Danelo, Harry Fukano, Kyle Johnson, Chad Law and Daniel Shortt. Dr. Nephi Stella, a professor in the UW School of Medicine, was a consultant on the report.

The supposed mission of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board is "to promote public safety and trust through fair administration and enforcement of liquor, tobacco and marijuana laws."

Graphic: Graham Lawyer Blog