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It's time to update and improve state's medical-marijuana law

Daily Dose 2011-04-11 0 comments

Senators urge Washington Legislature to pass a medical marijuana bill

By Jeanne Kohl-WellesJerome Delvin |  Published in Seattle Times

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles speaking to the idea that a cannabis distribution system so that participants are protected, from the grower to the patient.

Washington easily adopted medical marijuana by initiative in 1998, with 59 percent of the vote. That strong public support remains today. A recent poll found that 84 percent of Washington voters favor “allowing patients with terminal or debilitating conditions to possess and consume marijuana if their doctors recommend it.”

Unfortunately, the law is not working as the voters intended. This is why Senate Bill 5073 — currently under consideration in the Legislature — is so important and needs to be passed by the state House. If it doesn’t pass by Tuesday, the bill will die.

This bill would comprehensively license and regulate the production and dispensation of marijuana for medical use, and provide clarity to both law enforcement and patients about how to comply with the law. Patients, law enforcement and communities all will benefit from its passage.

Fixing Washington’s medical-marijuana law is a separate issue from the legalization debate. It is important we put our opinions on legalization aside and fix the state’s medical-marijuana law now. The current situation — a chaotic proliferation of dispensaries, unprotected patients and confusion for law enforcement — is simply unworkable.

Under current law, authorized patients and designated providers receive no protection from arrest and prosecution and may only raise the law as a defense in court. This is a costly and inefficient system for law enforcement and puts some patients through incredible hardships. Individuals with terminal and debilitating illnesses are still being arrested and prosecuted for trying to exercise their rights under the law.

SB 5073 would fix this problem by ensuring that qualifying patients won’t be taken into custody and providing full protection against arrest for patients who register in the state’s secure registry. These changes will also provide law enforcement with bright lines for determining who is a legitimate patient.

Another problem is that there is no system for patients to obtain a safe, secure and reliable source of marijuana for medical use. As a result, patients are forced to take on the difficult and expensive task of growing marijuana for themselves or turning to gray-market dispensaries popping up around the state. This is bad policy and has led to tremendous confusion.

Two recent court cases illustrate the problem. A Spokane man was found guilty on drug charges for operating a medical-marijuana dispensary. A week later, a Yakima man was found not guilty for operating a collective garden at his residence. Further, several cities have set up moratoriums prohibiting dispensaries until the Legislature passes the bill, while others continue to allow them.

SB 5073 will end this confusion by setting up a system of state-licensed and -regulated producers, processors and dispensaries overseen by the departments of Agriculture and Health.

Our state is not alone in addressing this issue. Thirteen other states plus the District of Columbia already have passed laws setting up regulated systems for making marijuana available to qualifying patients for medical purposes. And the federal government has let them do it — the Department of Justice directed federal law enforcement not to interfere in medical-marijuana states so long as the state’s laws are being followed.

Failure to pass SB 5073 would mean that Washington patients will be forced to live another year in fear that they may be arrested and prosecuted, and still have no reliable way to obtain their medicine. It also means law enforcement and local governments will be faced with unnecessarily difficult choices about allowing gray-market dispensaries.

SB 5073 provides a comprehensive solution for dealing with medical marijuana in our state. Let’s pass it now.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee. Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, is a former officer for the Richland Police Department.