Medical marijuana law must be fixed in special session
By Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles
The medicinal benefits of marijuana are now recognized throughout most medical communities and are steadily resonating among political circles, law enforcement agencies and the public at large. Today most people know a friend or loved one whose chronic pain or nausea was relieved or could have been by medical marijuana.
The medical use of marijuana has been legal in Washington since 1998, when 59 percent of voters statewide approved an initiative allowing patients with specific terminal or debilitating illnesses to receive an authorization from their health care provider for marijuana.
But, in its current form, our medical marijuana law is extremely confusing and leaves qualifying patients
without adequate legal protection or a safe avenue to receive their medicine.
Unless patients grow for themselves or designate someone to grow for them, the law offers no legal pathway for patients to access their medicine.
Many, such as terminal cancer patients, who are qualified to receive medical marijuana are too ill to grow their own and are forced to buy their medicine wherever they can get it, including on the street from drug dealers.
Perhaps equally alarming is that current law only provides medical marijuana patients "affirmative defense" in court. This means patients with legitimate medical marijuana authorizations could be arrested for possession of marijuana and be forced to wait until they go to court to prove they are in compliance with the law.
Not only is this heartless, it’s bad public policy. This is not what Washington voters had in mind in 1998 when they overwhelmingly called for compassionate medical marijuana laws. And public support continues to grow – a poll taken last year indicates 84 percent approve of the medical use of cannabis.
This year I introduced legislation aimed at clarifying and improving the law. The effort was the result of a two-year-long collaborative effort with patients, advocates, health care professionals, cities, counties and law enforcement.
In its original form, Senate Bill 5073 would have established a regulatory system for the growing, sale and purchase of medical marijuana with oversight from the Departments of Health and Agriculture. The need is clear as the situation has become intolerable, with unregulated dispensaries cropping up all over the state. The legislation also included protections for legally compliant patients from arrest and prosecution if they were to become listed on a secure voluntary patient registry maintained by the Department of Health.
Receiving strong support from both Democrats and Republicans, the bill passed the Legislature and was sent to Governor Gregoire at the end of the regular session in April.
Unfortunately, due to her concerns of putting state employees at risk of federal arrest, the governor vetoed the most substantive sections of the bill.
I understand the governor’s need to protect state employees, but, as many have said in recent weeks, the mostly-gutted bill is a serious step backward in our effort to improve the state's medical marijuana laws.
The loss of many of the bill's key provisions, coupled with changes to the law that were retained in the enacted legislation, means tens of thousands of qualifying patients will now face even greater challenges in obtaining their doctor- recommended medicine.
In her veto remarks, the governor indicated she may support a different approach to regulating the sale of medical marijuana at dispensaries, and as such I have been working with her staff on an attempt to craft a workable solution.
But we are already more than half way through the 30-day special session, and time is running out to correct the major problems and inconsistencies in our medical marijuana laws.
We cannot ignore this issue any longer – it simply will not solve itself. We must honor the will of voters by continuing to improve state law in a way that protects qualifying patients and provides law enforcement, cities and counties, and health care professional clear direction.
I introduced new legislation this week and am working to get it through the legislative process. The governor has said she likes it, counties and cities say they need it, and, above all, it’s essential for those individuals with very serious medical conditions to obtain a safe, secure, and reliable source of the medication that works for them and is recommended to them by their health care professionals.