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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Amended pot bill heads to House

OLYMPIA – A new version of a plan to regulate the production and sale of medical marijuana in Washington is headed for a vote in the state House after narrowly passing a committee Wednesday.

Now heavily amended, SB 5073 would allow the state Health Department to decide how many medical marijuana dispensaries could be located in each county, and would set up a lottery to obtain a license. There’s no guarantee the current dispensaries would receive a state license and stay in business after July 2012 when the new law takes effect, state Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, said.

Cody is chairwoman of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, which voted 6-5 to approve the new version of the medical marijuana bill.

The changes provide additional protection from arrest for those who have a letter from their doctor that marijuana would be the right treatment for their condition. Previous versions allowed a patient who signs up for a voluntary state registry to be protected from arrest and prosecution for possession of 24 ounces or less of marijuana; under the new version, a person who doesn’t sign up for the registry but has a doctor’s letter when stopped by law enforcement could not be arrested and jailed, but could still face court action where a medical marijuana defense could be argued.

The bill also forbids medical practices that are “solely” for recommending marijuana. That’s a small but potentially significant change from the previous version of the bill, which banned practices “primarily” around recommending marijuana, Cody said.

Spokane is among the communities looking for legislative intervention to resolve conflicting interpretations of the existing law. Medical marijuana advocates argue that commercial dispensaries are allowed under broad interpretations of the law, while prosecutors and police contend no such provision exists. A Spokane jury last week sided with prosecutors, convicting a dispensary operator on drug-trafficking charges for selling marijuana to doctor-approved medical marijuana users.

Cody said she thought the new version of the bill had enough support to pass the House, predicting it would lose a few Democratic votes but pick up a few Republican votes. It would then return to the Senate for a vote on the House changes.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she would sign a medical marijuana bill that offered some clarity to current law.