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Medical marijuana bill headed to House floor

Legislation that would allow but tightly regulate the production and sale of medical marijuana across Washington state is on the move in Olympia.

A heavily amended version of Senate Bill 5073 was narrowly approved this morning by the House Health and Wellness Committee and is headed to the full floor.

Legislative intervention is being closely watched in Spokane, where medical marijuana advocates and law enforcement officials disagree over whether the state’s current law allows commercial dispensaries.

A Spokane County Superior Court jury last week rejected the broad interpretation advanced by dispensary operators and convicted a medical marijuana supplier of drug-trafficking charges for selling to doctor-approved cannabis users. Local politicians have stayed out of the dispute by arguing that it’s a legislative matter, not a city council issue.

Here’s a look at SR reporter Jim Camden’s latest posting from Olympia on the issue:

OLYMPIA — The House Health Care Committee voted 6-5 this morning to send a new version of the medical marijuana bill to the floor.

The now heavily amended bill, SB 5073, would allow the state Health Department to decide how many medical marijuana dispensaries to be located in each county, and would set up a lottery for licenses for that number, so there’s no guarantee the current dispensaries could stay in business after July 2012 when the new law takes effect.

It also provides additional protection from arrest for persons who receive a letter from their doctor that marijuana would be the right treatment for their condition. A patient can be on a voluntary state registry, which would protect him or her from both arrest and prosecution for possession of 24 ounces or less of marijuana, or have the doctor’s letter, which would protect from arrest, but could still result in prosecution where the medical marijuana defense could be argued.

The bill also forbids medical practices that are “solely” for recommending marijuana. That’s a small but potentially significant change from the previous language, which banned practices “primarily” around recommending marijuana.

The requirement that dispensaries be nonprofit operations is also gone, and a collective marijuana operation can serve 10 people, rather than three under the old proposal. The Department of Agriculture would still be in charge of licensing marijuana growing and processing operations.

Health Committee Chairwoman Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, said she thought the new version had enough support to pass the House, predicting it would lose a few Democratic votes but pick up a few Republican votes. the original Senate bill had bipartisan sponsorship.

The Health Care Committee had a busy morning in executive session, also sending to the floor a revised version of a bill to establish a health benefit exchange — a system that would allow small businesses and individuals to shop for health insurance from different companies and take advantage of potential discounts for larger numbers that some bigger employers receive. The exchanges are called for in the federal health care reform law that passed one year ago today.

An amended version of SB 5445, which Republicans said would slow the process down while federal courts decide if the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and Congress decides how to pay for it, passed 9-2.