Health Department move provides ‘line in the sand’ for law enforcement
SEATTLE – The state Health Department on Thursday defined a two-month supply of medical marijuana as 24 ounces of usable pot and up to 15 plants, a limit designed to end a decade of confusion over how much patients are allowed to have.
But patient advocates criticized the limit as arbitrary and insufficient, saying it could leave sick people in danger of going to jail, and they threatened to sue to prevent the rule from taking effect.
“We looked at what appears to make sense for most of the patients in the state,” said department spokesman Donn Moyer. “There will be some who don’t need as much, and there may be some who need more.”
Washington was among the first states to approve the medical use of marijuana to treat AIDS, cancer and other debilitating illnesses. The law, passed in 1998, allowed patients a 60-day supply of marijuana, but didn’t say how much that was. Over the years, several patients with a doctor’s authorization to use marijuana have been arrested by police who deemed them to have more pot than necessary.
Patients who need more marijuana than allowed by the new rule can make that argument to a judge if they’re arrested.
The limit adopted Thursday takes effect Nov. 2 and nearly matches the rule used by Oregon, which allows 24 ounces plus six mature plants and 18 immature ones. Some California counties allow more marijuana, but many of the dozen states with medical marijuana laws allow much less than Washington’s new rule – just an ounce or two, in some cases.
The Health Department decided against using a mature-immature plant distinction largely because it didn’t want police to have to determine what constituted a mature plant.
Instead, officials went with a limit of 15 plants at any stage of growth.
Law enforcement officers “really just want a line in the sand,” Moyer said, and the 15-plant limit allows patients to decide how to grow them.
Patient advocates scoffed at that. Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle attorney who represents patients, noted that only female marijuana plants are usable as medicine, and about half of all plants grow to become male. So to get to 15 usable plants, a patient or provider might have to plant 30 – in violation of the law.
“No patient I know of anywhere in the state is in compliance with that number,” Hiatt said.
And, he said, the 24-ounce limit for dried bud might work for patients who smoke marijuana, but not for those who eat it. He called the limits “completely nonscientific.”
“We all know this is a political decision that doesn’t have anything to do with the reality of patients’ lives.”
The Health Department initially considered setting the limit at 35 ounces plus 100 square feet of plant canopy. But Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire found those numbers too high and urged officials to get more input from law enforcement and doctors.
The Health Department did so and cut the numbers accordingly. Law enforcement had worried that drug dealers could use a higher limit to conceal illicit marijuana growing operations.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ policy director, Joanna Arlow, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday. But she previously called the 24-ounce limit “reasonable.”
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