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Lawmakers act quickly with marijuana law fix

OLYMPIA – The Legislature moved swiftly Friday to fix a problem with the state’s new marijuana law that threatened to derail state prosecutions for illegally growing, processing and selling the drug.

In a body that faces a special session because of its inability to arrive at budget compromises after months of hearings and votes, members of the House and Senate used parliamentary procedures to rewrite the legal definition of marijuana with a bill that didn’t even exist at the beginning of the week.

It was a rare display of bicameral and bipartisan agreement in the midst of questions over when the special session would start and recriminations on who was responsible for sending the Legislature into extra innings. Easing the way was the fact that legislators appear to have no other options to fix the inadvertent problem with marijuana.

“There’s no way we can wait 11 months on these prosecutions,” Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, the sponsor of the marijuana bill, said after it passed the House 95-1 Friday afternoon.

In the morning, the House had voted overwhelmingly to suspend rules that generally require any bill to have been introduced and subjected to its first hearing months ago, and passed in some version by both chambers more than a week ago. House Bill 2056 was introduced Wednesday and passed by the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee on Thursday. The Senate agreed to the request to suspend the rules, allowing the House to take up the bill.

Because it changes the wording in Initiative 502 – which sets rules for the legal growing, sale and consumption of marijuana by adults – the bill must pass with a two-thirds majority in both chambers. It got that easily in the House, after some Republicans who raised concerns in Thursday’s hearing agreed it was a small adjustment, not a major change.

The change involves what makes a cannabis plant “marijuana” under the law. The plants have different levels of chemicals: delta-9 THC, which is psychoactive, and THC-A, which is not. I-502 defines marijuana by the amount of delta-9 THC present in material seized by police. But the equipment used by the state crime lab turns THC-A into delta-9 THC, so a lab analyst can’t say for sure what the level of the psychoactive chemical was in the material before the test, opening the door for challenges by defense attorneys.

The bill changes the definition to cover both chemicals. It was sent to the Senate, which has today and Sunday to pass it with a two-thirds supermajority and send it to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has agreed to sign it, Hurst said.

Working toward a new marijuana definition was not the only action on Day 103 of the 105-day session. While budget discussions between legislative leaders and the governor’s staff went on in the background, the House and Senate gave final approval to bills that have been worked back and forth, amended and rewritten to the point that most are no longer controversial. The Senate whiled away some time approving gubernatorial appointments, mostly with unanimous votes. Rumors floated on when a special session will start – no one any longer doubts whether one will be needed – and partisan motives were ascribed to any particular starting date.

But the marijuana bill proved the Legislature can act quickly, at least in some instances, Hurst said: “You can if it’s the right idea and it’s very clear.”



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