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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local disability boards could approve payments for medical marijuana

Medical marijuana products at Satori, a North Spokane retail shop, photographed June 29, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Local boards that oversee disability programs for police and firefighters can approve payments for medical marijuana that has been properly authorized by a doctor, a Washington state attorney general’s opinion says.

But whether that would jeopardize federal funding for city or county programs isn’t clear.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson and his staff recently issued the opinion in response to an inquiry from Yakima County Prosecutor Joseph Brusic, who had asked if the board that oversees the Law Enforcement and Fire Fighters Retirement Plan could cover medical marijuana for a member who has cancer.

It could, although the board wouldn’t have to cover it, the state attorneys concluded.

State law requires the board to cover, at a minimum, drugs and medicine prescribed by a doctor. But medical marijuana isn’t prescribed: It’s authorized under state statutes that allow a patient with certain terminal or debilitating conditions to buy it after a health care provider completes a form and the patient meets other requirements.

So while medical marijuana doesn’t fall under the same section of the law as a prescription drug, it could be covered by court decisions that allow a LEOFF board to cover other medical services at its discretion.

First, the board should determine whether the treatment is medically necessary for the member’s condition, and then set down clear rules for when it will and won’t reimburse members for authorized medical marijuana. If it does that, covering medical marijuana would be legal, the attorneys concluded.

Because marijuana remains a drug with no legal use under federal law, it’s not possible to say whether the board’s approval would jeopardize any federal grants for Yakima County, the attorneys added.

Federal policies for enforcing marijuana laws are “fast-moving and unpredictable,” the attorneys said. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Justice Department said it would not focus resources in states where laws provide for the use of medical marijuana. But early this year, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that order.

Any attempt to withhold federal money may depend on the discretion of federal officials and the terms of grants the county receives, the attorneys said. There are some federal court cases involving conditions for federal grant money, but they don’t involve medical marijuana.

“Despite dozens of states allowing medical marijuana use, we are unaware of any example of a federal grant being denied to a state or local government on the basis that its jurisdiction allowed the use of medical marijuana,” the attorneys said.

An attorney general’s opinion provides guidance for state and local officials but doesn’t have the force of a court ruling.