Medical, Recreational Marijuana Laws Present Unique Challenges to States

There are some inherent problems with trying to implement state marijuana laws that, technically, are a federal crime.

Thomas A. Burns, director of pharmacy programs for the Oregon Health Authority, asked attendees at Sunday’s Future of Western Legislatures session if any of them were officers.

“You can’t be in this room,” he laughed. “Everybody else in this room, we’re going to tell you how to aid and abet a federal felony.”

Burns was responsible for setting up the regulations governing the state’s medical marijuana law when it was passed by voters in 1998. The state has 65,000 patients who hold a card that allows them to use medical marijuana, 33,000 caregivers who can assist patients who need help using medical marijuana and 45,000 grow sites.

Kentucky Sen. Julie Denton said the commonwealth’s legislature had bipartisan support on a bill passed this year that allows the use of low-THC—the ingredient that causes a user’s feeling of a high—marijuana oil for medical use. Two state universities were given authority to dispense the oil, but university officials are hesitant to participate for fear of losing federal funding for other projects.

That fear of what actions the federal government—which still consider marijuana a schedule 1 narcotic—will take is keeping a lot of states from acting.

“None of the states I’m familiar with have actually made this oil extract available to the general public” due to federal uncertainty, Denton said.

Sharon Foster is chair of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which is charged with licensing and enforcement of the state’s recreational marijuana dispensaries. Washington’s first legal retail marijuana stores opened July 8.

“There are many challenges in implementing a state law that is illegal federally,” she said. “We’re all guilty in almost everything we do in this marketplace.”

Although state leaders are beginning to look at recreational marijuana as a potential source of revenue—Washington state collected excise taxes of almost $900,000 in the first 29 days alone—the federal government’s view of marijuana does present problems. Banks, for instance, mostly refuse to do business with marijuana growers or retailers.

“Collecting taxes is not an easy thing,” Foster said. “They (growers and retailers) don’t all have bank accounts. We’ve had to put in a bulletproof wall and window for cash collections in our agency, and a safe and security. … We do know that banks don’t like stinky money (that smells like marijuana). That’s a bridge yet to be crossed.”

Foster said states considering recreational marijuana legislation need to realize how long it takes to set up the regulations needed for this type of business.

“The impact on state resources is heavy,” she said. “This is not a normal business.”