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Oversight rules for medical marijuana head to Senate

OLYMPIA – Rules for growing, processing and selling medical marijuana passed the Washington state House of Representatives after heated debate Monday on whether the proposed law has enough safeguards to prevent sales to children.

Supporters said it was an effort to be compassionate to the chronically ill and dying who have a doctor’s recommendation for, but no access to, a substance that will give them relief.

Opponents said it will lead to more drug abuse, particularly among children.

With only 12 days left in the regular legislative session, House members sent back to the Senate a proposal that requires the state Agriculture Department to regulate production and processing operations and the Health Department to regulate dispensaries of cannabis for medical use. Sales to anyone under 18 would not be allowed.

The number of dispensaries in each county would depend on the number of patients on a voluntary state registry, and the stores couldn’t be any closer than 500 feet to a school.

Too close, said opponents, who tried unsuccessfully to change the distance to 1,000 feet, the standard for the federal “Drug Free Schools” program. Marijuana “is still illegal under federal law,” said state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley.

“I don’t believe we zone pharmacies for 1,000 feet,” Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, said. “We keep crossing over (in the debate) to illegal use.”

“We do not want to open accessibility to kids,” said state Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane. “Part of our job is to look out for unintended consequences.”

Local jurisdictions could expand the zones, but a 1,000-foot line would close off all of Seattle to dispensaries except an area under Interstate 5, said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.

The bill was changed to prohibit displaying marijuana or paraphernalia in a dispensary window, and to allow hotels and motels to enforce no-smoking rules for medical marijuana just as they do for cigarettes.

Because the bill was amended, it must go back to the Senate, which passed a previous version. Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday she wanted to study the changes before deciding whether to sign it.

If the bill does become law, it faces one other hurdle. Mike Ormsby, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, last week warned that property being used for a dispensary could be seized by the federal government because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The 1998 medical marijuana initiative approved by voters sets limits for personal possession of the drug but does not authorize stores, he said.

If the bill does become law, whether it would halt federal enforcement against stores may be up to the courts.

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