June 12, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: Medical pot law requires further clarification


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Last year, the state of Washington tried to clarify murky laws related to medical marijuana, but more confusion, not clarification, was the outcome. As a result, Spokane County prosecutors are facing an impending court date without evidence seized in a raid by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

U.S. District Court Judge Frem Nielsen suppressed that evidence May 31, ruling that law enforcement didn’t rule out a new medical marijuana exception to the state’s controlled substances law when writing the search warrant. Before last year’s change in law, suspects could be arrested on marijuana charges, and they had to prove the pot was for allowable medicinal purposes. Now, according to Nielsen, the burden shifts to law enforcement to show that there is a reasonable suspicion that pot is being grown for illegal purposes.

Prosecutors argued unsuccessfully that this was not the intent of the legislation. Deputies are now wondering how they can conduct marijuana investigations. Legislators anticipated this problem by calling for the establishment of a patient and caregiver registry. Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed that provision.

So, law enforcement now must figure out whether growers have a legitimate use for the marijuana without having a registry to consult. Perhaps they could employ a mind reader.

The confusion doesn’t end there. Gregoire vetoed the registry over fears that any state involvement in the delivery of medical marijuana would put state employees at the risk of arrest by federal law enforcement. Under federal law, marijuana possession is illegal regardless of its purpose. In December, Gregoire and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee asked the feds to change marijuana’s classification as a Schedule One drug (no medicinal purpose). That would end the conflict with federal law and pave the way for states to adopt medical marijuana laws.

Many people in criminal justice believe Gregoire is overly concerned with federal prosecutions of state workers. Among the 17 medical-marijuana states (and the District of Columbia), only Washington has no registry. While we agree with her call for federal reclassification of marijuana – the current status is ridiculously outdated – a state registry would be useful in the meantime.

The Spokane case is a prime example of that. Law enforcement says it needs to search marijuana grow operations to determine whether they are in compliance with the new law, which allows up to 10 people to harvest up to 45 plants together. To get a search warrant, investigators need to account for the new medical marijuana exception, but that’s nearly impossible without a registry.

And so, here we are once again, with an incoherent system for carrying out what the voters called for in 1998 when they adopted an initiative for the medicinal use of marijuana.

In our view, law enforcement has placed too much emphasis on marijuana cases when so many other crimes can’t be pursued because of a lack of resources. But police agencies cannot be expected to completely walk away from marijuana-related crimes. It’s up to federal and state officials to take a more realistic view of the threats and benefits of marijuana use, and write the laws accordingly.

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