This Thursday, the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee will be having a hearing for the medical marijuana bill introduced by Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36). State Rep. Jim Moeller (D-49) has introduced an identical bill in the House.
These bills have been introduced because of the numerous shortcomings in the original medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998 and updated in 2007. These shortcomings have been frustrating for patients and law enforcement as it’s given rise to a quasi-legal system of underground dispensaries. Here are the main items that this legislation aims to address:
– Arrest Protection – Under the current law, patients don’t have any formal protection from arrest. Under the February 2010 State Supreme Court decision in State v Fry, courts affirmed that police can conduct searches and arrest even the patients who are following the letter of the law and force them to prove in court that they’re in compliance. In most of the state, this hasn’t mattered as few county prosecutors are willing to drag medical marijuana patients through the court system when they’re clearly in compliance, but there have been exceptions (particularly in rural counties like Kitsap).
– Cooperative Grows – Under the current law, there’s no provision for cooperative grows, which for many is a convenient way to ensure a constant supply of medicine. Under the language of the bill, coops will be limited to 25 people and 99 plants.
– Licensed Producers and Licensed Dispensaries – The most significant part of this bill is the creation of a regulated system of marijuana producers and dispensers. Producers will be licensed and regulated by the Department of Agriculture and dispensaries will be licensed and regulated by the Department of Health. Under the current language of the bill, the licensing would begin on July 1, 2012. In the interim, the bill claims that dispensaries operating under the terms of this law will be able to present an affirmative defense in court. One issue that’s been raised is whether adding these responsibilities to these state agencies can be done in the current all-cuts environment – even with the knowledge that the taxes collected from this bill would be a minor windfall for the state budget.
– Designated Providers – While this bill authorizes dispensaries and coops, it does not dismantle the existing rules regarding designated providers. However, dispensaries have used some creative legal reasoning to maintain that they’re complying with the restrictions on designated providers that they can only provide for one patient at one time (in some cases by having each customer sign a paper denoting that the dispensary is their provider for the duration of the transaction). Under this bill, a designated provider must wait for 15 days to switch the patient they’re providing for. It’s not entirely clear whether the provider will be in violation of the law if he continues to grow plants in that fifteen day period.
– Employment Protection – Earlier today, the State Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Jane Roe v. Teletech. This case involves a woman who was fired from a customer service phone job that she’d just started after she tested positive for marijuana on a drug screening. She’d previously informed them at the time she was hired that she was a medical marijuana patient. The bill includes language that provides employment discrimination protection against cases like this unless the job involves public safety, operating heavy machinery, or handling dangerous substances. It doesn’t provide any protection for those who want to use medical marijuana while at work.
– Probation – There’s language in the bill that allows for individuals (if allowed by a judge) to use medical marijuana while on probation. This is a response to the aggressive attempts (at the behest of Rob McKenna’s office) to prevent anyone on probation from being able to use medical marijuana – even if they’d been an authorized patient for years.
– Patient Registries – What’s arguably the most controversial part of the bill among patients is the patient registry. In order to provide an easy way for law enforcement officials to determine whether individuals are authorized patients, the bill establishes a patient registry. The language of the bill is fairly strong about providing the proper kinds of mechanisms to keep this information secret, but recent news events from other states have shown that promises of confidentiality don’t always work out as expected.
I’ve been typing up this list while at the Cannabis Defense Coalition’s meeting to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the bill. There’s a lot of nervousness among patients that this bill could end up like the bill in 2007, where the strongest aspects of the bill are stripped away, leaving patients in continued limbo. My hope is that the experience of the last few years gives the legislature a greater impetus to provide real fixes for a broken system. On Thursday, we’ll begin to find out where this is headed.
UPDATE: The city of Edmonds is trying to ban dispensaries. They apparently already have one that operates openly there. If Kohl-Welles’ bill passes, however, cities like Edmonds would not be able to override the state law and ban dispensaries outright. They could only use “reasonable” zoning restrictions to keep them from being located in certain areas.
UPDATE 2: Nina Shapiro has more here in the Seattle Weekly.