OLYMPIA -- The Senate gave final passage this morning to a bill that attempts to regulate medical marijuana production and sales, setting up a possible showdown with the governor, who opposes provisions for state employees regulating different aspects of the system.
On a 27-21 vote, with members of both parties coming down hard on both sides, the Senate approved amendments to the system adopted by the House earlier this month. That agreement, known as concurrence, sends Senate Bill 5073 to Gregoire.
"This is an important step forward compared to the status quo," Sen. Lisa Brown, D- Spokane said. The current system, set up by a 1998 initiative that allows medical marijuana but sets up no system for patients to obtain it, is unfair to patients, neighborhoods where dispensaries are springing up and legitimate businesses that could provide the product, she said.
The rules in the bill, such as one that allows a patient to grow 15 plants, and three patients to form a co-op and grow 45, are too lax, argued Sen. Jeff Baxter, R-Spokane Valley. "It is a gateway drug," he said.
SB 5073 requires the state Department of Agriculture to license control the production and processing of medical marijuana, and the Department of Health to license dispensaries. A letter from U.S. attorneys in Seattle and Spokane warned Gregoire that federal law still lists marijuana as an illegal drug, and state employees could be arrested for any activities that involved marijuana.
Because of that, Gregoire has said she would not sign a bill that puts state employees at risk, even though she believes the state's medical marijuana law needs clarity. (For more on the controversy over the U.S. attorneys letter to Gregoire, click here.)
Update: An hour after the bill passed, Gregoire indicated she would veto at least part of it: "I asked the Legislature to work with me on a bill that does not subject state workers to risk of criminal liability. I am disappointed that the bill as passed does not address those concerns while also meeting the needs of medical marijuana patients," she said in a prepared statement. "I will review the bill to determine any parts that can assist patients in need without putting state employees at risk."
Today's action by the Senate was no compromise. It approved the same language that passed the House before U.S. Attorneys Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan responded to a request for guidance from Gregoire.
The warnings from Ormsby and Durkan were dimissed by some supporters of the bill. "You could look at this as a state's right," Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland said. "Tell D.C. to butt out."
Opponents said the group that lobbies for local police and sheriffs oppose the bill, too.
But far more time was spent debating a basic conflict over medical marijuana that predates the voters' approval of an initiative in 1998. Supporters said it's a humane product for cancer patients and some other medical conditions, and people who want to use it should have a system of legal access to a reliable product. "Are they supposed to just find a dealer on the streets?" Rep. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said. With the bill "patients weill be certain that the product they're using is safe."
Opponents said it's a precursor to other drugs and a stepping stone to complete legalization of marijuana. Some agreed marijuana may be appropriate for a small, and possibly shrinking, number of patients as other treatments become available. But doctors' recomendations are too easy to come by, they said, and overall use becomes more prevalent and acceptable because of the growth of medical marijuana.
"You are voting for something that is on the cusp of legalizing marijuana for everyone," Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said.
Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, said the current system of unregulated medical marijuana is the bigger problem, because it's too hard to tell what's legal and what's illegal. "This is a vote between maintaining the status quo and trying to establish a bright-line, enforceable framework...Law enforcement is not cracking down on the dispensaries. Now is the time when illegal users are hiding behind the law."
Here's how Spokane-area senators voted on final passage of SB 5073: Republican Mike Baumgartner and Democrat Lisa Brown voted yes; Republicans Jeff Baxter, Bob Morton and Mark Schoesler voted no.