Washington Bill Would Allow Medical Marijuana Dispensaries


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

​State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles will introduce a bill in the Legislature this week which would permit medical marijuana dispensaries to open across Washington state.

Washington’s medical marijuana law doesn’t specifically allow dispensaries, reports Dominic Holden at The Stranger, but the shops are already proliferating in some areas, existing in a legal gray area that is yet to be sorted out.
Existing dispensaries — concentrated in the Seattle and Tacoma areas — often avoid drawing attention by inconspicuously setting up shop in industrial areas and office buildings (although I’ve personally been to more than one storefront dispensary in King County). If Kohl-Welles’s bill passes, though, the state Department of health would permit the shops to operate statewide as nonprofit corporations, likely resulting in more open advertising and more visibility.

Photo: Progressive Voters Guide
Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles: “It’s never easy to get through legislation that has to do with marijuana”

​”I feel optimstic,” said Kohl-Welles, who in 2007 and 2010 successfully pushed through two clarifications of the state’s medical marijuana law, originally approved by voters in 1998. But, she admits, “It’s never easy to get through legislation that has to do with marijuana.”
Washington’s influential law enforcement lobbies have been a major obstacle to strengthening the state’s medical marijuana law. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA) and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) will likely once again be at the forefront of opposition to this bill.
“There is a dissatisfaction among many prosecutors with the medical community for dumping this issue onto our laps,” said WAPA executive secretary Tom McBride. (Gee, Tom, do you want the patients to apologize for getting sick and thus making this difficult for you?)
Neither McBride’s lobby nor the police group have formally taken a position on the bill, and won’t until later this month, but it’s all but 100 percent certain they’ll be dead-set against it.
Prosecutors realize Washington’s current medical marijuana law doesn’t provide safe access for seriously ill patients to obtain cannabis, according to McBride, but prosecutors “are concerned about addressing access without enabling recreational use.”
Of course, patients would argue that such protections are already built into the state’s medical marijuana law — which is considerably stricter than California’s — and that the current situation often forces them to buy cannabis on the black market. Is that what WAPA wants?

Photo: King County OIRM
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg: “It would be better to have [dispensaries]licensed and regulated”

​But the bill does have the backing of at least one influential WAPA member, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. Satterberg, known for his reasonable approach to medical marijuana, said he intends to urge WAPA to support the bill, calling it “an improvement on the vague and unworkable statute that we now have.”
“It would be better to have [dispensaries]licensed and regulated,” Satterberg said, adding that the bill could include “appropriate conditions” that may include bans on dispensary advertisements.
Kohl Welles’s bill would also make several other improvements to the existing medical marijuana law in Washington, most importantly (finally!) providing arrest protection for authorized patients who posses less than the state-mandated “60 day supply” of 15 plants and 24 ounces of dried marijuana. (The current law provides only an “affirmative defense” in court once patients have already been arrested and hauled to jail.)
Other changes in the bill would include:
• Establishing a state-run registry of medical marijuana patients who have authorization from a doctor
• Allow the state Department of Agriculture to license marijuana growers to cultivate and sell medical cannabis
• Allow groups of up to 25 patients to grow collective gardens of up to 99 plants.
The state-run registry part of the bill would likely be looked upon more favorably by law enforcement than other provisions, because police groups have historically supported such a move, saying it would make it easier for them to distinguish between legal patients and recreational users.
“I think the registry helps on a number of patient-identity fronts, but it does not directly tie to accountability of supply distribution by dispensaries,” waffled the WAPA’s McBride.
Kohl-Welles admitted that dispensaries could be cut out of her bill during the legislative process. “I don’t know that every provision of the bill will move forward, but I feel good about the arrest protection language going through,” she said.
State Rep. Jim Moeller (D-49) will sponsor a companion bill in the state House, according to Kohl-Welles, who said she’s still looking for co-sponsors in the state Senate.