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Medical-marijuana providers urge regulation, say ban could hurt patients

Tranquility Holistic Center Manager  Steven Hinch, center, helps a patient, as co-manager Ted Warren looks on. - Brian Beckley, Renton Reporter
Tranquility Holistic Center Manager Steven Hinch, center, helps a patient, as co-manager Ted Warren looks on.
— image credit: Brian Beckley, Renton Reporter

While the products in the back may have names like “Casey Jones,” “diesel,” “blueberry kush” and “bubble gum,” make no mistake about it, for the providers and the clients at Tranquility Holistic Center on South Third Street, this is serious medicine.

Manager Steven Hinch can tell you exactly which of the marijuana products will best alleviate your symptoms, based on the spectrometry profile of the marijuana, which reveals which cannabinoids – the chemical compounds in marijuana that react with the body – are present in the plant and therefore tell Hinch how that particular strain will affect a patient.

“Each cannabinoid has a very specific effect,” he said, noting that all of the marijuana at Tranquility is screened.

For example, Hinch said there is a specific cannabinoid that helps relieve the pressure on the eyes caused by glaucoma. Some strains contain more than others and some strains contain more of the cannabinoids that get you “high.” And for many patients, Hinch said the important thing is not the buzz but the medicinal effects. That is, after all, why they are there.

“Getting high is not going to help them,” he said.

It’s exactly because of that knowledge of the product and the medicine and how it will affect the patients that Hinch and co-manager Ted Warren are worried about losing if the Renton City Council opts to ban medicinal marijuana within city limits, something it appears poised to do next month when the present moratorium on the business ends.

It is also why Hinch and Warren both want to see greater regulation on the state level, to not only legitimize their business but also to provide patients with the kind of information and safety testing that can protect them from bad actors in the industry just looking to sell pot and not necessarily as only medicine.

“We’re not mindless stoners, like a majority of the people might think,” Warren said.

Warren is not only the manager at Tranquility but also a patient. Warren is fighting leukemia and says the marijuana, which he juices and drinks in the morning, thereby, he said, avoiding heat which activates the psychoactive chemicals and prevents the high.

He said he went to 68 gardens and dispensaries before he met Hinch, who was the first person to walk him through what the strains would do and how to get the most effective medicine to help his condition. Most others, he said, were just interested in giving him the most potent strain they had in stock.

Hinch said that is a story he hears often and it is why he, like the city, supports increased regulation of the medical-marijuana industry. But he fears that the lack of regulation from the state is leading to cities like Renton simply deciding to ban collective gardens, which both men said would only hurt people who are already sick.

“Good taxpaying citizens will become criminals,” Warren said.

The state’s medical-marijuana law is based off of a voter-approved initiative passed in 1998. The law allows for patients who get approval from a doctor to possess and grow marijuana for medical purposes. The law also created the “collective garden” so patients could work together. For example, someone contributes dirt, another person space, another person the lights, perhaps someone tends the garden.

“It’s an agreement between patients to help one another,” said attorney Jay Berneburg, who represents Tranquility and many other medical-marijuana businesses. Berneburg is also affiliated with the Greener Business Bureau, a group created to self-regulate and police collective gardens.

Things got confusing, however, when the state Legislature in 2011 sent a bill to Gov. Christine Gregoire’s desk that was designed to establish a licensing system and patient registry for medical marijuana. Gregoire used her line-item veto power to remove large parts of the law in an attempt to protect state employees from potential federal prosecution and in the process eliminated any and all regulations the legislature attempted to put in place, leaving something of a mess for the industry and cities to deal with.

Berneburg said the veto left collective gardens as the “de facto economic model” for medical marijuana.

“But it was never meant to be,” he said. “There are no rules.”

With the lack of any specific regulation in place, the model that sprang up was one of temporary membership in a collective garden as a way to get medical marijuana. Berneburg said the law is clear that gardens may have no more than 10 members “at any time” and courts have ruled that those three words are the key to the legality of garden memberships.

Today, when a patient with a valid prescription for marijuana goes into Tranquility, Berneburg said that person fills out a form to become a member  of their garden. After they become a member, they can use their membership to access the medicine and then “make a contribution to the garden,” since sale and purchase of medical marijuana are still illegal.

Once they’ve received their medicine, they leave, creating what Berneburg called a “rotating membership.”

“When they leave, they resign their membership and that opens a seat,” he said. “Another patient can become a member.”

Berneburg added that Tranquility keeps all of the paperwork and is in “strict compliance with the law.”

“This is a lot of paperwork we set up people to do,” he said. “If we were just a front, we wouldn’t be worried about all that.”

Berenburg and his group also advocate for greater state regulation of medical marijuana.

But while Gregoire’s veto may have accidentally created the current system, the courts have also ruled that Gregoire’s veto of the registry, which was required for the businesses, gives cities the opportunity to ban medical-marijuana facilities within their city limits.

For the guys at Tranquility, the worry is that banning gardens in the city will hurt their patients, which they number about 2,000 and include seniors from the housing facilities downtown. They also worry that recreational-marijuana stores, of which Renton is scheduled to have three, will not only not have the strains their patients need, but that I-502, the initiative legalizing recreational marijuana use, specifically outlaws any discussion of medical uses at recreational stores.

Hinch advocates a system similar to the one put in place in Colorado, where they have a “seed-to-sale” tracking system in place. He does not mind keeping all of the paperwork necessary and thinks his patients will not mind additional regulation.

“We knew from the beginning we wanted to do things as legit as possible,” he said.

“If you regulate it, I know as a patient I have a safe product I can use,” Warren said. “If you can’t jump through the hoops, you shouldn’t be doing this anyway.”

But without state regulation and direction, something the city hoped the legislature would take care of during the last session, Renton is moving to ban medical marijuana and though Hinch said he is open to regulation and open to new policies the city may put forth, he hopes they do not simply ban the businesses.

Hinch said he did not comment at a public hearing on the topic at the Planning Commission because the first he heard about the possible ban was in the Renton Reporter. He said the mayor has reached out to him and he will make his case there; but in the meantime he hopes the city will work with him and his patients to make sure they get the medicine they need because if a city like Renton bans medical marijuana, he fears a domino effect in other cities as well.

“There needs to be checks and balances in place,” Hinch said. “I’m not just peddling high THC bud here.”

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