|Photo: Reality Catcher|
|Although dispensaries are neither specifically allowed nor banned by Washington's current medical marijuana law, more than 120 have opened.|
Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington since voters approved Initiative 692 in 1998, but the law left confusion around how patients who qualify to use medical marijuana can legally get it.
The heavily amended Senate Bill 5073 would allow the state Health Department to decide how many dispensaries could be located in each county, and would set up a lottery to obtain a license, reports Jim Camden of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
|Photo: Howie In Seattle|
|Rep. Eileen Cody thinks the new version of the dispensary bill has enough support to pass the House.|
There's no guarantee current dispensaries would receive a state license and be allowed to stay in business after July 2012, when the new law would take effect, according to state Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle).
Of course, that raises a number of questions, primarily how many dispensaries would be allowed in a place like King County, home of Seattle, where some estimates already place the number of operating dispensaries at more than 100.
Another question of concern is whether the lottery would place unproven entities who have not yet successfully operated dispensaries on an equal footing with experienced collectives that have been up and running for years.
The House Health Care and Wellness Committee, of which Cody is chairwoman, voted 6-5 on Wednesday to approve the new version of the medical marijuana bill.
The changes provide additional arrest protection for patients who have a signed statement on tamper-proof paper from their doctor that marijuana would be the right treatment for their condition. Previous versions allowed a patient who signed up for a voluntary state registry to be protected from arrest and prosecution for possession of 24 ounces or less and 15 plants or less.
Under the new version, a person who chooses not to sign up for the registry, but has the proper paperwork 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 unfortunately bans medical practices that are "solely" for the purpose of providing medical marijuana recommendations, which is a small but significant change from the previous version of the bill, which prohibited practices "primarily" for the purpose of recommending marijuana, Cody said.
|King County Bar Association|
|John Schochet, Seattle City Attorney's office: "Given that we have a medical marijuana system in the state, dispensaries in some form are inevitable"|
Legal or not, medical marijuana dispensaries have become a fact of life in Washington because many people are unable to grow cannabis for themselves or find a personal provider, said John Schochet, a lawyer from the Seattle City Attorney's Office, reports Katie Schmidt at the Tacoma News Tribune.
"Given that we have a medical marijuana system in the state, dispensaries in some form are inevitable," Schochet said. "We want to approach the problem from the perspective of how we can do this in a way that is good for communities."
Different localities in Washington have taken wildly different approaches to dispensaries. In King County, the county prosecutor has taken the position that dispensaries are illegal, but has not taken action. Across Puget Sound in Kitsap County, the county prosecutor has vowed to arrest anyone who opens a dispensary.
Medical marijuana advocates argue that commercial dispensaries are already allowed under a broad interpretation of the law approved by voters in 1998, but prosecutors and police claim no such provision exists.
A jury in Spokane last week sided with law enforcement, convicting a dispensary owner on drug-trafficking charges for selling medical marijuana to doctor-authorized patients.
The House committee made changes to the bill, which had already passed the Senate in a 29-20 vote, mainly by cutting out amendments that were added during the Senate floor vote.
The committee eliminated a requirement that dispensaries be nonprofit, removed a provision that would have allowed local governments to prohibit dispensaries, and required the Health Department to cap the number of dispensary licenses it issues in each county, based on the number of patients there.
The bill has faced predictable opposition from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (no surprise there), the Washington State Pharmacy Association (ditto), and the Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention (somebody really needs to tell these morons that marijuana doesn't cause violence).
Cody said she thought the new version of the bill has enough support to pass the House. It would then return to the Senate for a vote on the House changes.
"Right now we have such ambiguity in our law regarding our protection for authorized medical marijuana patients, and I hate to see that," said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), the bill's primary sponsor.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she would sign a medical marijuana bill that offered some clarity to the current law.