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Latest marijuana bill would create patient registry, co-ops

OLYMPIA – The latest incarnation of a bill to add structure to Washington’s medical marijuana laws has supporters who don’t like parts of it and opponents who do.

People who operate clinics and dispensaries questioned the need for a voluntary registry of medical marijuana patients the bill would create. Law enforcement officials like the registry, although they don’t care for a provision that would allow patients to set up nonprofit co-ops to grow their supplies. Some cities like flexibility for co-ops and collective gardens; others want to be able to ban them.

What they generally agreed upon Wednesday, however, was that something has to change.

“This is like a big puzzle, trying to put all the pieces together into a coherent whole that will make sense for all the groups,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, the sponsor of SB 6265, which had its first hearing Wednesday.

The bill is just part of the marijuana puzzle. Minutes after the hearing concluded, the Senate received formal notice that an initiative that would allow adults to use and possess small amounts of marijuana has far more signatures than it needs to be certified. The Spokane City Council could vote later this month to echo a request by Gov. Chris Gregoire and other governors that the federal government reclassify marijuana.

Gregoire vetoed much of the medical marijuana bill that passed last year, and Kohl-Wells’ bill is another attempt to set guidelines. It allows individuals to grow their own medical marijuana supplies, join as many as 10 others for a collective garden, or become part of a nonprofit cooperative. A patient who signs onto a voluntary registry wouldn’t be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana; a patient not on the registry could be arrested but in court could assert the “affirmative defense” that they have a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana for a medical condition.

That defense exists now, and because of it many city and county law enforcement agencies in Western Washington do not arrest people for marijuana possession if they show proof of a doctor’s recommendation.

James Lathrop, a Seattle doctor who operates a clinic for marijuana patients, said that practice is working so well that a voluntary registry isn’t needed. “It quickly becomes a not-voluntary registry,” he said.

Don Pierce of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said the current practice of not arresting patients with documentation would continue. But a registry is a good idea because it would keep police from serving warrants on patients who are growing medical marijuana that their neighbors see and report, he said.

Some patients questioned whether the registry could be kept confidential, and Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, asked if it could cause problems for patients who later had to submit to a federal background check to buy firearms.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, also questioned whether a “cultural divide” exists in Washington, in which East Side law enforcement is more likely to arrest medical marijuana patients, even with documentation. A voluntary registry could be “an invitation to get wrongly arrested,” he said.

Mike Ormsby, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, shut down marijuana dispensaries that didn’t close after he warned them they were violating federal law. Later this month, the Spokane City Council will consider a resolution that joins in requests for the federal government to ease up on marijuana laws by moving it from a Schedule I drug, which is illegal in all uses, to a Schedule II drug that can be prescribed for certain conditions.

Councilman Jon Snyder, a co-sponsor of the resolution, called it a “baby step toward clarification” that would put the city on record as supporting a request by Gregoire.

The resolution was discussed at the council’s Public Safety Committee this week and could come to a full council vote on Jan. 30.

The Senate bill tries to help cities through “the ambiguity and the murky situation” of supplying marijuana to patients, Kohl-Wells said. Cities with more than 200,000 residents could opt out of laws that allow them to set up cooperatives, and cities with fewer than 200,000 residents would be able to opt in and develop laws for cooperatives.

Steve Sarich of CannaCare, which operates marijuana clinics and dispensaries, said that could allow each to set up its own laws and there could be “15 different laws between Seattle and Spokane.”

Sen. Karen Keiser, the committee chairwoman, said the bill would likely see changes before the panel votes on it.

Shortly after the hearing, the Senate got formal notice from Secretary of State Sam Reed that Initiative 502, which would make the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana legal for anyone over 21, was turned in with 354,608 signatures – about 110,000 more than it needs to be certified.

It’s an initiative to the Legislature, which means the two chambers could pass it and make it law, reject it (which would send it to the November ballot), or pass an alternative that would be on the November ballot with the initiative.

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