With all eyes focused on the implementation of Washington's new recreational marijuana law, it's easy to forget that medical marijuana is already legal and thriving. But maybe not for long. Medical marijuana is still unregulated, and now recreational stores are complaining that medical sellers aren’t required to pay taxes or jump through administrative hoops. Medical marijuana growers aren’t allowed to sell their products to recreational stores. And medical marijuana stores who didn’t qualify for a recreational permit face the threat of being shut down. The legislature may take up the issue next session, but in the meantime, medical marijuana growers, sellers and users remain in limbo. Will recreational pot be the death of medical marijuana?
Seattle, Washington -
Josephine Cheng: In a small kitchen in Pierce County, Christine Emineth concocts a powerful potion...
Christine Emineth: So this is just avocado oil.
Cheng: She mixes gourmet oils with a hash, or cannabis concentrate.
Emineth: It does smell like marijuana, it does.
Cheng: But the potion is not for Christine. It's for her 5-year-old daughter.
Emineth: Time for meds. That's it. Do you like the taste of it?
Cheng: Why would a loving mom give her young child marijuana three times a day? When Trystyn was just a baby, the seizures began. Epilepsy. A form called Dravet's Syndrome. At 18 months, she turned blue from a seizure that lasted and hour - and nearly killed her.
Emineth: It's scary. You just pray that it'll stop, that it won't take your kid.
Cheng: Christine once captured just a few seconds of a seizure. It doesn't begin to capture how her heart jumps to her throat several times a month.
Emineth: Sometimes, that's how people die from epilepsy, is that the seizure never stops. They induce them into a coma if it doesn't stop.
Cheng: Then, other parents in her epilepsy support group suggested a seemingly radical treatment.
What was your first reaction - did you think, what? Marijuana?
Emineth: Yes, I was shocked. Working in law enforcement, quite against it. And being ex-military, quite against using any marijuana at all.
Cheng: Christine's view of marijuana did a complete turnaround after she saw the difference in Trystyn. Once drugged into a stupor, she's a kid again...weaned from some of her pills.
Emineth: Yeah, she never use to have energy like this.
Cheng: Trystyn's story is exactly why there's a grass roots movement to create a separate legal system for medical marijuana, apart from recreational marijuana. Although legalized in 1998 - 14 years before recreational marijuana - medical marijuana in Washington State still operated in a gray zone.
Emineth: It's kind of a black market.
Cheng: Virtually no laws, no enforcement - a system on the verge of toppling. And Trysten is just one type of patient. Here is another. Allison, who won't share her last name, takes us to her secret garden in West Seattle.
Allison: Hello ladies, how are you doing today?
Cheng: Yup, those are 30 marijuana plants she talks to.
Allison: How’s the flowering going?
When you talk to them, it kind of pumps up the juices and produces bigger tricone heads.
You’re doing a good job today!
Cheng: Washington State allows medical marijuana patients to grow up to 15 plants per person - more if they grow for others in a collective garden. With no other regulations and zero oversight, marijuana in Seattle just might be more commonly grown than roses. Are the gardens grown purely for medicinal purposes? That's another hazy area.
Allison: I definitely use recreationally as well, but I started this, what I do, was for medical.
Cheng: Even some of Allison's friends have told her, legal recreational marijuana may smoke out unregulated medical marijuana.
Allison: They would prefer medical go away because then it would mean they’d get more business. They’re like we’re legit now, you’re not legit. And I’m like we’re going to be legit!
Hempfest Band: I just want to get high. It's what I really want. I just want to get high.
Cheng: At Seattle's annual Hempfest, you'll meet thousands of other medical marijuana patients. At least, that's what they'll tell you.
Devin Hollis: I actually have a problem with eating.
Cheng: Like Devin Hollis, who pulls out his medical marijuana authorization for lack of appetite. And Charles Raymond, who has authorization for chronic pain.
Charles Raymond: Some nights when I drink and get drunk and have a really bad hangover, this gets rid of the stomach pains instantly.
Cheng: Among the young, the latest craze is dabbing.
Raymond: What I’m going to do is heat it up on my nail to about 700 plus degrees...
Cheng: which burns a butane hash concentrate loaded with up to 80% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis and produces a fast, intense high.
At 4:20 pm, Hempfest passes out free pre-rolled joints. Most folks here say they are medical marijuana patients. But almost no one will deny, there are plenty of fakes.
Karl Keich owns one of about 200 medical marijuana dispensaries in Seattle.
Karl Keich: Because of the lack of regulation by the Department of Health, doctors – we call them “doc in a box,” they’re going to write authorizations for, you got a splinter? Intractable pain? Here you go, here’s your authorization!
Cheng: Why would fake patients go through the trouble of buying fake authorization in order to buy unregulated pot, when they can simply walk into a regulated, legal store selling recreational marijuana? Because the pot sold at medical dispensaries costs half as much as those at recreational stores, which are required by law to add hefty taxes. And Karl claims his buds are bigger and better...
Keich: That's huge! I like big buds and I cannot lie!
Cheng: And his selection of products is incomparable.
Keich: Jam, peanut butter. It’s in everything!
Cheng: But dispensaries like Karl's are still illegal under federal law. He worries everyday about being raided. Unlike Colorado, dispensaries cannot sell to both medical and recreational customers. Our state granted only 21 recreational licenses in Seattle, based not on owners' expertise or experience, but purely by lottery. Karl lost the lottery.
Didn’t get it? How did you feel about that?
Keich: Gosh, almost betrayed. Are we going to be around next year? I don’t know. I hope so!
Cheng: For dispensaries, the gray zone won't work forever. Fact is, everyone in the medical marijuana supply chain operates in a haze of uncertainty. Even here, at one of the state's biggest grow operations, called New Leaf, where 9-million-dollar-a-year revenues are growing as fast as their plants. It's big business.
Do you want to be regulated?
Dax Colewell: Yes. Regulation is legitimacy. It needs to be regulated.
Cheng: Here's what's at stake. Like its plants, New Leaf began as a clone of a small grown house and took root.
With strains of classical music to foster growth, and lighting that tricks plants into flowering early, the company grows 25 strains of marijuana. Harvesting the 200 pounds - soon to be 350 pounds - every month.
Some are high in THC, for getting stoned. Others like this AC/DC plant, is higher in cannabidiols, or CBD, which is purportedly more medicinal. The biggest, best buds are sold to dispensaries like Karl's at premium prices. The rest are tossed in a Cuisinart and extracted into hash oils or cannibis concentrate, which New Leaf sells under the Dama brand, packaged into syringes, tinctures, dabs, capsules, and cartridges for vaporizer pens. All that plus the herbs are for medical marijuana.
Illegal under federal law, even a big company like this could be shut down at any time. The owner knows he can't survive this way forever. He wants to go legal.
Colewell: There is a point to this of making money. And recreational market is going to be a giant market.
Cheng: But as with dispensaries, Washington state won't let growers sell to both recreational and medical marijuana stores. It's one or the other.
To switch, New Leaf is applying for a new recreational license, which may require shutting down medical growing.
Colewell: This is the little miracle maker…
Cheng: And that gets back to the AC/DC plant - Trystyn's medicine.It's high in CBD's, low in THC so...
Emineth: it won't get her high. No, we tried it, it doesn’t.
Cheng: New Leaf currently donates marijauan to Trystyn and 30 other patients. Once the company goes recreational, the firewall goes up - no more supplies to medical patients. The same marijuana oil in the recreational market could cost $1,000 a month, which Christine doesn't have.
Emineth: We're going to lose on the medical side. That's the problem.
Cheng: Problems with a marijuana system still in infancy. So many people on the tipping point, with livelyhoods and lives, hanging in the balance.
Emineth: That’s the scariest thing in life is if we can’t get her medicine.
Fourteen-time Emmy winner Josephine Cheng has been a reporter, host and producer for more than 20 years. She covered daily and health news for KOMO-TV, then traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest and several continents reporting feature stories and specials for KING-TV's Evening Magazine. She hosts Council Conversations for the Seattle Channel. At KCTS 9, Josephine has hosted the personal finance show About the Money, produced arts documentaries and the award-winning Golden Apple Awards, which spotlights outstanding teachers. In addition to her Regional Emmy Awards, Josephine has won several national awards from the American Federation of Women in Television, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.More stories by Josephine Cheng