State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who represents the 36th District of Queen Anne and Ballard, will introduce a bill this week or next that would—while also providing several new protections for medical-marijuana users—permit medical-pot dispensaries to open across the state.
Currently, neither state nor federal law allows the dispensaries, so the existing outlets—which are proliferating in a legal purgatory—avoid drawing the attention of passersby by innocuously setting up shop in industrial areas and office buildings. If this bill were to pass, however, the state’s Department of Health would permit the dispensaries to operate as nonprofit corporations, likely resulting in more advertisement and pot storefronts like in California.
Despite the ambitious nature of the bill, Kohl-Welles says, “I feel optimistic,” because she successfully pushed through two tweaks to the state's 12-year old medical marijuana law in 2007 and 2010. But the dispensaries will likely be a sticking point. “It’s never easy to get through legislation that has to do with marijuana,” Kohl-Welles admits.
Indeed, the bill would be hampered by a slimmer Democratic majority in Olympia this year. And the biggest obstacle in past efforts to fortify the state’s medical marijuana law has been influential law-enforcement lobbies, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA) and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC). This time will likely be no different.
“There is a dissatisfaction amongst many prosecutors with the medical community for dumping this issue onto our laps,” says WAPA executive secretary Tom McBride. Neither McBride’s group nor the police lobby have formally taken a position on the bill and won’t until later this month.
Prosecutors understand that current law doesn’t explain how the seriously ill can obtain medical marijuana, McBride says, but his members “are concerned about addressing access without enabling recreational use.”
This bill from Kohl-Welles would make several other changes to the existing rules. Foremost: (1) Prevent officers from arresting patients who possess less than 15 plants or 24 ounces of dried marijuana (previous rules allowed only a defense in court); establish a state-run registry of medical marijuana patients with an authorization from a doctor; (3) let the state Department of Agriculture license marijuana growers to cultivate and sell medical marijuana; (4) allow up to 25 patients to grow a collective gardens of up to 99 plants.
The bill does have the backing of at least one powerful voice in WAPA. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg intends to urge the group 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,” he says. This bill could include “appropriate conditions” that may include bans on advertising.
One way to help the medicine go down would be the state-run registry, which law-enforcement groups have historically supported because it would allow them to easily distinguish between a legal patient and a recreational user. “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,” says McBride.
Kohl-Welles acknowledges that dispensaries may be edited out of her bill during the legislative session. “I don’t know that every provision of the bill will move forward," she says, "but I feel good about the arrest projection language going through.”
Federal law, while still making marijuana illegal for medical use, has little impact in Washington as long as Obama remains president. In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced he wouldn't pursue medical-marijuana patients or providers abiding by state law.
Kohl-Welles is currently identifying co-sponsors in the senate. She says state representative Jim Moeller (D-49) will sponsor a companion bill in the state house.