|Graphic: Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Directory|
|Dispensaries already exist in at least King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, but if a new bill passes the Washington Legislature in 2011, they could operate statewide|
SB 5073 last month had already passed the Senate, and passed the Washington House late Monday afternoon on a 54-43 vote.
The bill clearly and unambiguously allows state-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries. While some dispensaries are already operating, clarity in Washington's law is expected to help protect dispensary operators from costly litigation and possible convictions.
In addition, SB 5073, as amended, protects all medical marijuana patients from arrest -- not just those who register with the state. Currently, no patients are protected from arrest, as has been the case since Washington voters overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana in 1998.
The bill allows Washington doctors to operate practices that are "primarily" devoted to medical marijuana patient evaluations, but prohibits practices that are "solely" for medical marijuana recommendations.
It also provides a grace period until January 1, 2013 for currently operating dispensaries to get fully licensed with the state, and provides them with an affirmative defense in court until then.
When the final differences between the just-passed House version of the bill and last month's Senate version of the bill have been approved in the reconciliation process, the bill will head to the desk of Governor Christine Gregoire.
Senate lawmakers will have to work through several changes. For example, the House version sets a quota of one dispensary per 20,000 residents, resulting in at least 93 storefronts in King County. The two versions also differ on the allowable size of gardens for patients who grow cannabis collectively.
Gregoire's office has indicated she would probably sign a bill which brings clarity to the legal status of dispensaries in the state, although she said "At this point, I have concerns about it."
Bill sponsor Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) said it would expand access for patients while providing a "bright line" for law enforcement.
If differences can be worked out with the Senate, "It'll be the strongest medical-marijuana protection in the country," Kohl-Welles said.