As I was putting together Monday’s post on the corruption within the Department of Corrections, there were a few news items related to medical marijuana that I haven’t had a chance to discuss. First and foremost, there was a court ruling that affirmed what most patients in Washington already knew. Our medical marijuana law doesn’t protect authorized medical marijuana patients from arrest, it only allows them to present a medical defense at trial. During the attempts to update the law in 2008, this was a primary objective for patients, yet any language that explicitly protected patients from arrest was stripped from the bill before it passed. Many people laid this failure at the feet of Governor Gregoire, but it’s not clear exactly what happened or who wanted the language removed.
For those in Seattle, this isn’t much of a problem. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg doesn’t prosecute anyone who has a medical marijuana authorization. This has been true even for more envelope-pushing patients like Mark Spohn, who openly grows for multiple patients (another aspect of the law that is unclear). The Seattle Police generally have no interest in bothering patients – in fact, it’s worth noting the disparity in professionalism that was exposed in Monday’s post. Both Parkins and Cole, despite the actions of the corrections officers, praised the professionalism of SPD on the day that Parkins was arrested. Both Satterberg and Seattle Police recognize that they have better things to do than to send sick people through our court system when all they need to do is show a judge their authorization and they’re found not guilty.
But that hasn’t been true throughout the state. The Cannabis Defense Coalition court calendar continues to track cases of authorized medical marijuana patients going through our state’s courts. After the law was revised in 2008, Governor Gregoire said that if authorized patients were still getting arrested that she’d work with the police chiefs. So far we haven’t seen any indication that she’s willing to back that statement up with action.
A second bit of news is that the State Senate passed a bill to allow medical professionals other than licensed physicians to give medical marijuana authorizations. If passed into law, it isn’t likely to change the overall number of patients in the state, but will likely make it less of a hassle for them to get authorized. The fairly restrictive list of ailments allowed by the law keeps our medical marijuana regulations from looking more like California’s, where you can get a medical marijuana authorization for anything from insomnia to depression. Even as someone who has used marijuana in the past – and has noted how it helped me sleep better and made me a happier person – I never considered myself to be using it for medical reasons. Yet much of our current pharmaceutical industry is driven by “curing” these two afflictions. That’s why discussions over what makes marijuana a medicine and what separates recreational use from medical use are often muddled. The line isn’t entirely clear.
It’s worth noting that the complainant in the recent court case referenced above was found to have an authorization that wasn’t even legal. It was for anxiety and depression, which are not covered by the law. And in going through the released documents from the DOC, it’s very easy to be skeptical about whether or not some of those who were requesting to use medical marijuana would have been found similarly outside of the law. In fact, one of the doctors who authorized several patients, Dr. Antoine Johnson, was arrested in Madagascar this past October after fleeing the country to escape fraud charges.
Parkins, on the other hand, is a legitimate patient with a legitimate need (under 69.51A.010(4)(b)), but whenever there are doctors who are giving marijuana authorizations to anyone who walks into their office, it does cast doubt on everyone. And this was the mindset that many within the DOC were working with. Throughout the internal discussions, there was a common belief that all medical marijuana authorizations were a sham, primarily because they saw many of them coming from a single doctor. But after they defined their process and began denying everyone, a pattern started to become more clear. Most of the medical marijuana requests were coming from only 2-3 doctors, but most of the requests that were clearly within the scope of the state law weren’t. They were coming from a variety of different doctors, and they were the only authorizations coming from each of those doctors. Despite what the DOC convinced themselves, a lot of very real doctors recognize the very real benefits of marijuana for certain serious medical conditions.
If the DOC were smarter about how they handled this process, they could have denied a number of requests for people to use medical marijuana on probation and not caused such a backlash – simply by enforcing the law as it’s written. Several people requested medical marijuana use for things like anxiety, which isn’t even covered. But the Attorney General’s office and the DOC went way beyond that, trying to re-define the law in a way that made it impossible for anyone on probation to qualify. The legality of what they did hasn’t been decided by a court in this state yet, but it’s pretty clear the policy caused far more problems than what would’ve happened had they just followed the voter-approved law.