Spokane citizens could soon have their say on the controversy growing locally and statewide on the enforcement of marijuana laws.
Citizens for a Sensible Spokane, a group that supports legalization of the drug, is collecting signatures for an initiative to make possession of marijuana by adults the city’s lowest law enforcement priority. The proposal is similar to one approved by Seattle voters in 2003.
Laws surrounding marijuana have taken on importance this year as city and state leaders grapple with contradictions in the state law that allows people to use marijuana for medical reasons.
The state Legislature approved a bill – later mostly vetoed by Gov. Chris Gregoire – to regulate the marijuana dispensary business, which was booming in Spokane until federal officials recently cracked down. U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby first warned dispensaries that they were violating federal law, followed by several police and federal agents’ raids late last month.
Ian Moody, coordinator of Citizens for a Sensible Spokane, said 2,778 signatures are needed to place the initiative on the ballot. He said the Spokane group is separate, though supportive, of Sensible Washington, which is collecting signatures for an initiative to legalize marijuana among adults.
Moody said Thursday that the Spokane group had collected close to 1,000 signatures.
“There’s been a really positive feedback from the community,” he said.
Besides making marijuana the lowest enforcement priority, the city initiative would set up a committee to oversee implementation and marijuana policy and require the city to formulate rules and tax policies related to the drug if it is legalized by the state.
Some city leaders have criticized the proposal.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults already is a low priority for the city’s police force. She said setting the priority in law could make it difficult to enforce more important laws.
“You could be doing human trafficking in the back and we would have an inability as law enforcement officers under this approach,” Verner said in an interview last month. “Or you could have gang-related activity associated with recreational marijuana.”
Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, however, said the law doesn’t stop police from pursuing more serious crimes simply because marijuana might also be involved. Moreover, the rule doesn’t decriminalize pot possession or ban the prosecution of possession (though Seattle’s current city attorney has pledged not to prosecute people for simple marijuana possession).
Licata, who led Seattle’s Marijuana Policy Review Panel, which was created when the priority rule was approved, said he knows of no negatives created by the law.
“It worked in the sense that it freed officers up to do other things,” he said.
Charles Wright, owner of THC Pharmacy in Spokane’s South Perry neighborhood, said in an interview last month before the business was raided that he would generally support the proposed initiative.
“I support the medicinal use of marijuana and not the recreational use per se,” he said. “I don’t think it strengthens our medicinal case, but I wouldn’t have to worry about my patients being harassed.”
About a dozen people came into the THC Pharmacy in a half-hour period one morning last month. Only one agreed to speak with a reporter. The Spokane resident, who was waiting to see Wright and requested anonymity, said she supports the effort to de-emphasize marijuana enforcement. She said she decided last year to try marijuana for the first time in decades to relieve her back pain. Although her regular doctor wouldn’t provide her a prescription for marijuana, he was very supportive of her decision, she said.
She said she now controls her pain with ibuprofen in the day and marijuana at night.
“It’s made a tremendous difference,” she said.
Dr. Kim Thorburn, Spokane County’s former health officer, said marijuana likely does help some patients, but there have been few clinical trials of its use because of federal marijuana regulations.
“What I would love to see is a change in policy and good research and to get this settled,” she said. Thorburn said if she lived in the city she would probably vote for the proposal to make pot possession the lowest law enforcement priority. It could help take the focus of government drug policy off of enforcement and toward the treatment of drug addiction, she said. Marijuana, she said, is safer than alcohol.
Dr. Joel McCullough, the Spokane County health officer, said he doesn’t have an opinion about the city initiative but agreed that while it appears there is evidence of potential medical benefits from the drug, more research is needed. He added that if marijuana dispensaries are allowed, they should be better regulated to protect people with legitimate medical needs.
Verner expressed frustration with the contradictions between state and federal law.
The efforts of initiative supporters “would be much better spent at the federal level asking our federal legislative body to do something,” she said. “Then we all have clarity, because there’s not clarity right now.”