September 17, 2010 in City

Vestal: Medical marijuana dispensaries don’t seem like big threat

By The Spokesman-Review
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It’s time to de-stupidify medical marijuana.

Earlier this month, the local gendarmes once again expended a bunch of time and effort bringing down a medical marijuana dispensary. If someone breaks into your garage, don’t hold your breath waiting for an officer. But if you’re growing medical marijuana in that garage, they’ll find a way to send a car.

Last September, city police busted Change, a North Side marijuana dispensary. Two men face felony charges from that bust, with trial set to begin Sept. 27. Then, earlier this month, county sheriff’s deputies busted the Med Mar Dis, a Spokane Valley dispensary. The owner faces felony charges.

Everybody feel safer now?

With our muddle of a law on medical marijuana, prosecutors can choose their path: tough or lenient. Here, we’ve obviously chosen the former. In King County, prosecutor Dan Satterberg has taken a saner tack, saying he has “more important things to do.”

The law, in an enormous nutshell, says: It’s legal, if a doctor writes on tamper-resistant paper, which is not a prescription but a recommendation, that you have a medical condition, including HIV and cancer but not Alzheimer’s disease or neuropathic pain, that would benefit from the pain-relieving or appetite-boosting properties of marijuana, for you to possess a 60-day supply, which is defined as 24 ounces or 15 plants, or more if a patient can prove a medical need.

Naturally, it’s illegal to buy or sell it. It’s legal for one “provider” to “provide” medical marijuana to one person “at any one time.”

Which is to say nothing of federal law, which prohibits possession of marijuana, medical or otherwise. But the U.S. attorney general last year urged prosecutors to take it easy on users.

Did a monkey write these laws? Simple folk might just do something simple, like legalize it. Medical or not: Who cares?

Of course, if you come out and say this, you run two risks: the enthusiastic embrace of patchoulied Rastafarians and Phish fans, and asinine arguments from those who see pot as sinister and fail to recognize the difference between recreational and medical use of the drug.

We saw a great example of this a month ago, when Dino Rossi dumbly mocked medical marijuana research at Washington State University in Vancouver. Rossi put out a statement criticizing a federal grant of $148,000 for a study.

The release’s headline was: “It’s 5:00 Somewhere, But It’s 4:20 At Washington State University.” It said taxpayers are tired of their money “going up in smoke.” It said the money wouldn’t stimulate anything “other than sales of Cheetos.”

As hilarious as these jokes are, they miss the point by a mile.

The WSU researcher, Michael Morgan, has spent 25 years studying the effects of pain-relieving drugs on the brain. People who take opiates build a tolerance that makes them less effective over time. In studies on lab rats, Morgan found that using opiates in conjunction with synthetic cannabis makes the drugs more effective – suggesting possible ways of improving pain treatment for people.

But still. Hilarious.

“One of the things I found ironic about it is that marijuana is a controlled substance, but so are opioids,” the class of drugs including heroin, morphine and oxycodone, which he researches primarily, he said.

“No one’s criticizing those studies,” he said. “Those drugs can kill you. I don’t know of anyone who’s died from an overdose of marijuana.”

But there is a big underdose of clarity in the law. The county prosecutor’s office says dispensaries are flatly prohibited, and the state agrees, saying the law limits providers to supplying one person, period. Advocates of medical marijuana argue that the law limiting providers to one patient “at any one time” means simply: one at a time.

Both interpretations are inane. What we have is a law that allows people to have pot, but not to get it. Even growing your own – I’m no gardener, but wouldn’t you have to commit a crime to get the seeds? So there’s daylight for the cops to be super-zealous. But it’s hard to understand why they would be, given the strained resources and crisis-level budgets we keep hearing about.

Neither John Grasso, the county’s chief drug prosecutor, nor the sheriff’s investigator involved in the most recent case were available for comment this week. Local officials have said the dispensaries are magnets for seedy behavior and crime, and a cover for illegal sales; they’ve also suggested that courts need to clarify the law.

That’s one approach. But I prefer Satterberg’s. He has declined to charge dozens of medical-marijuana cases, and has argued that if patients have a legal right to the drug, they ought to be allowed to “band together” and share costs and resources, according to the Seattle Times.

I visited a Spokane dispensary this week – you can still smell it on me. Understandably, given that news media coverage helped prompt last year’s bust, no one there was interested in an interview.

But it didn’t seem like a big community threat to me. Didn’t seem like Eliot Ness needed to come breaking down the door.

I know we’re not Seattle. But maybe we’ve got more important things to do, too.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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