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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

WA Lege Day 10: Medical marijuana bill draws criticism

OLYMPIA -- The latest incarnation of a bill to add structure 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. Law enforcement officials like the registry, although they don't care for a provision that would allow patients to set up non-profit 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, 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," Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, the sponsor of SB 6265 said.

Wednesday's hearing on the latest attempt to write state laws to protect people who use a drug banned by the federal government but approved by Washington voters was just part of the puzzle state officials are trying to solve. Just minutes after the hearing concluded, the Senate received formal notice an initiative to the Legislature 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 states' governors that the federal government reclassify marijuana so that it's not banned for all uses.

Last year the Legislature passed fairly extensive legislation that covered the production, processing and licensing of medical marijuana and the registration of patients who used it. Gregoire vetoed much of that legislation and Kohl Wells bill is another attempt to set guidelines for the registration, growing and distribution.

It allows for individuals to grow their own medical marijuana supplies, join as many as 10 others for a collective garden, or become part of a non-profit cooperative where they can obtain small amounts after receiving a doctor's recommendation. The gardens and cooperatives couldn't be within 500 feet of a community center or a school.

A patient who signs onto a voluntary registry wouldn't be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, one who doesn't join 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 and have the case dismissed.

The affirmative defense exists now, and because of that, 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.

But 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.

"There could be some problems for gun owners who sign onto a registry," Pierce agreed.

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.

But Pierce said the crackdowns against dispensaries in Eastern Washington were conducted by the federal government, not local law enforcement.

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 wold put the city on record of 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 "come to grips with the ambiguity and the murky situation" of supplying marijuana to patients, Kohl-Wells said. Cities with more than 200,000 residents to 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 might not clear things up. Every city could 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 go through some changes before the panel votes on whether to send it to the Senate floor.

But when senators got to the floor from their morning hearings, one of the few bits of business they had in their shortened session was the 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, which is 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, could reject it which would send it to the November ballot, or pass an alternative that would be on the November ballot with the initiative.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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