OLYMPIA – With a vote in the state Senate on Thursday, both chambers of the Washington legislature have approved a measure seeking to regulate the production and sale of medical marijuana, setting up a showdown with Gov. Chris Gregoire, who doesn’t want state employees involved in overseeing those activities.
“This is an important step forward compared to the status quo,” said Sen. Lisa Brown, D- Spokane. The current system, set up by a 1998 initiative that allows medical marijuana but sets up no system for patients to obtain it, is unfair to patients, to neighborhoods where dispensaries are springing up, and to legitimate businesses that could provide the product, she said.
On a 27-21 vote Thursday, the Senate approved an amended bill adopted by the House earlier this month. That agreement sends Senate Bill 5073 to Gregoire.
The rules in the bill, such as one that allows a patient to grow 15 plants, and three patients to form a co-op and grow 45, are too lax, argued Sen. Jeff Baxter, R-Spokane Valley. “It is a gateway drug,” he said, contending teenagers will be looking for ways to qualify for medical marijuana as soon as they turn 18.
The bill requires the state Department of Agriculture to license the production and processing of medical marijuana, and the Department of Health to license dispensaries.
A letter last week from U.S. attorneys in Seattle and Spokane warned Gregoire that federal law still lists marijuana as an illegal drug, and that state employees could face arrest for any activities that involve marijuana.
An hour after the bill passed, Gregoire indicated she may veto at least part of it.
“I am disappointed that the bill as passed does not address those concerns while also meeting the needs of medical marijuana patients,” she said in a prepared statement. “I will review the bill to determine any parts that can assist patients in need without putting state employees at risk.”
Thursday’s action was no compromise. The Senate approved the same language that passed the House before U.S. Attorneys Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan issued their warning in response to an inquiry from Gregoire.
The warning was dismissed by some supporters of the bill. “You could look at this as a state’s right,” said Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland. “Tell D.C. to butt out.”
Opponents countered that a group representing local police and sheriffs also opposes the bill.
But far more time was spent debating a basic conflict over medical marijuana that predates the voters’ approval of an initiative in 1998. Supporters said it’s a humane product for cancer patients and some other medical conditions, and people who want to use it should have a system of legal access to a reliable product.
Opponents said the bill was a stepping stone to complete legalization of marijuana.
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