Medical marijuana laws need Legislature's help

November 17, 2010 

A dozen years later, and Washington state still hasn't figured out what to do about medical marijuana.

It's time to get it right.

The ballot measure legalizing marijuana to treat chronic pain and certain other conditions was approved by voters in 1998.

But what must have seemed simple to the nearly 60 percent of Washington voters who favored the initiative has proved to be a complicated mess for patients.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles is drafting a bill for the next legislative session that could finally accomplish what voters set out to do.

She's starting out on the right foot, approaching the problem in cooperation with patients, advocates and others with an interest in resolving the issue.

More importantly, she has the right goal in mind.

"For a long, long time I have wanted to do whatever I can to provide clarification in the law and address the issues that are paramount to patients and caregivers -- how they can access a safe and reliable supply of medical marijuana," Kohl-Welles recently told Herald reporter Michelle Dupler.

That's not even close to how things work today, despite the clear mandate from state voters.

Those suffering from a terminal or debilitating illness are allowed to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana with a written recommendation from a doctor.

But in most of the state, it's practically impossible to obtain the drug legally. As a result, most people who need marijuana to ease their suffering resort to the same black market that supplies illicit drug users.

Worse yet, following the rules doesn't always protect legitimate patients from arrest for marijuana possession.

The law's fine print merely allows the accused to offer medical use as a defense against marijuana charges. That's a particularly incon-venient way to make medi- cine available to those who need it.

It's also one flaw in current law that Kohl-Welles hopes to eliminate with legislation next year.

"I don't think it's right to have patients arrested," Kohl-Welles told the Herald. "That doesn't make sense to me."

Of course, coming up with a law that does make sense is easier said than done.

In California, the marijuana industry has all but dropped the pretense of medical necessity. It's an open secret that virtually anyone can readily find a doctor willing to write a prescription for pot.

But victims of cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and chronic pain shouldn't be denied the relief that marijuana can provide because others might abuse the drug.

That argument isn't raised against the array of prescription painkillers that are routinely abused.

Fixing Washington's medical marijuana laws to help the sick without creating a new and easy source for recreational users is a challenge.

But it's not beyond our abilities. If lawmakers want to fix the problem, they can.

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