By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington state lawmakers passed a bill on Tuesday to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries running in parallel with recreational-use cannabis stores, in a first step towards reconciling the disjointed markets.
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, voters in Washington state and Colorado sanctioned the recreational use of cannabis in landmark votes in 2012 that ushered in licensed and taxed retail stores offering adults a range of products.
But in Washington state, a loosely regulated medical marijuana industry runs alongside the recreational-use system, with retail business owners complaining they are at a disadvantage.
"Regulations on the market had to happen," said John Davis, who owns two medical dispensaries in Seattle. "Keeping a non-commercial and a commercial medical system open, ultimately, is going to serve the patients."
The Washington Senate on Tuesday voted 41-8 for the bill that will remove collective gardens, which supply medical dispensaries, from July 1 next year, in favor of four-person "cooperatives."
Some existing collectives can continue to run if granted a license on the basis of factors such as the applicant's tax history.
The bill will let state-licensed pot retailers obtain a medical marijuana endorsement to sell products.
It also creates a database of medical patients and lets authorized patients possess three times the amount of marijuana allowed by the recreational-use law. They can also grow up to six plants at home.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has been pushing lawmakers to act on the issue for a year, is expected to sign the measure into law but can veto parts of it. A similar version of the bill passed the House last week.
Opponents have criticized the measure as the equivalent of a sick person having to get medicine in a liquor store, saying regulators were already "overtasked" in managing commercial pot, while patients feared higher retail prices.
Many unanswered questions remain, such as the number of dispensaries to survive under the bill and how actively police would clamp down on shops violating the law, besides the fate of another bill on the industry's tax structure.
Republican Senator Ann Rivers, the bill's sponsor, called the measure a "first step" in reconciling the two marijuana markets, saying: "I am certain we'll be back fine-tuning this next year."
(Editing by Curtis Skinner)