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Monday, October 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pot bill tamped down

Governor’s partial veto keeps state workers free from federal scrutiny

OLYMPIA – State workers will not be licensing medical marijuana growers or dispensaries, and patients will not be able to sign on to a registry that could save them from arrest.

Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of a bill Friday afternoon that would have established a state structure for the production and sale of medical marijuana, saying she feared state workers involved in the system would face federal prosecution.

“We cannot assure protections to patients in a way that subjects state employees to prosecution,” she said. “That is not acceptable. It is not workable.”

She left intact a few of the bill’s provisions, including a section that says medical marijuana patients don’t lose parental rights and an organ transplant can’t be denied for medicinal use of the plant. But she vetoed most sections dealing with “dispensaries,” which are the subject of a federal crackdown in Spokane.

A spokesman for Washington medical marijuana businesses said Gregoire’s action makes operating a dispensary even more difficult, because she left in a section that requires a provider to wait 15 days between patients. Ezra Eickmeyer, of the Washington Cannabis Association, said dispensaries believe they currently comply with the law by serving only one patient at a time. He acknowledged, however, that defense didn’t work in a recent criminal prosecution in Spokane; that conviction is being appealed.

Gregoire said she was urged by some to assert state’s rights, because Washington voters legalized marijuana for medical uses in 1998. But marijuana remains illegal for all uses under federal law, she said.

“State law does not trump federal law,” she said. “Is it a state right to violate federal law? Is it a state right to put state employees at risk?”

Gregoire based her decision in large part on a letter from U.S. Attorneys Mike Ormsby in Spokane and Jenny Durkan in Seattle, who said state employees could face prosecution under federal statutes for any involvement with marijuana. The bill called for the state Department of Agriculture to license growing and processing operations, and the Department of Health to determine the number of dispensaries in a county and regulate them.

Greg Devereaux, executive director of the Washington State Federation of Employees, sent a letter Friday urging her to veto the bill to protect state workers. Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington law professor and constitutional scholar, sent a letter Thursday urging her to sign the entire bill to prevent “bullying” by federal officials.

She declined to speculate on whether Thursday’s raids on dispensaries in Spokane were some signal from federal prosecutors. In the absence of state standards, cities would be free to craft local rules on medical marijuana, she said. They could also initiate their own crackdowns.

“I leave that to them. There is not unanimity” among cities on medical marijuana, she said. Currently, there is nothing in state law that says medical marijuana dispensaries are legal.

Medical marijuana patients can grow their own supplies or join in a cooperative growing arrangement under a section that remains after Gregoire’s selective veto.

Although the special session is supposed to focus on budget issues, Gregoire wouldn’t object if the Legislature made another run at a medical marijuana bill and brought her new legislation. The best solution for the clash between the states and federal government over medical marijuana may lie in a change to federal law, she said. States that have medical marijuana laws should work to have the federal government move the drug from Schedule 1, which makes it illegal for all uses, to a Schedule 2 drug, which would allow some legal applications.

Shankar Narayan of the American Civil Liberties Union said he considered some of Gregoire’s arguments about putting state employees at risk “specious.” A change in federal law could take months or years, he added.

Vetoing the bill means marijuana remains legal for some but no laws spell out legal ways to obtain it, he said. Right now, the state has some shady dispensary operations and others that are doing their best to be legitimate businesses.

“Without a law, you can’t tell which is which,” Narayan said.

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