Time to fix the omissions in medical marijuana law

January 24, 2011 

Thirteen unlucky years have marked the time between Washington's electorate approving a medical marijuana law and the jumble we now are in.

In 1997, the Herald opposed a referendum that would have legalized marijuana, freed people from jail or prison on mere marijuana offenses and made medical marijuana available to patients.

The initiative failed.

Then in 1998, Dr. Rob Killian, a family physician who had seen marijuana's benefits work on patients with terminal and debilitating illnesses, took the initiative's defeat -- and the Herald's opposition, he told us -- as a sign it needed some work.

He worked with legislators and eliminated the part that would have released prisoners convicted of drug possession from jail.

The new measure, Initiative 692, was a specific, no-nonsense solution to a disagreement between the law and an increasing consensus in the medical community. It would legalize use of marijuana by patients with certain terminal or debilitating illnesses, such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and pain not relieved by other medications.

It also would permit physicians to advise patients about medical use of marijuana and set reasonable restrictions on when it could be used and how much a patient could keep on hand.

That is the law as it stands today.

But it isn't really working well.

There's a disconnect between doctors, patients, suppliers and law enforcement.

In Seattle and Spokane, we are told, it is possible to obtain marijuana for medical uses openly -- almost routinely.

In most of the rest of the state, including here, it's a dicey game, with people of good intentions unclear on exactly what the law means.

So there is a profusion of shops in some places and none in others.

There's a move under way to clarify the law during this session of the Legislature.

We hope it makes its way into legislation.

The Herald in 1998 said it believed marijuana use should remain illegal and subject to penalty.

But, we said, "this initiative provides a narrow exception that is appropriate for a few suffering people."

We were wrong about the "few" people involved, it turns out.

For many years the Herald urged the availability of medical marijuana, indeed, supported medical use of whatever drugs are found by the professional medical community to be effective.

There were too many cases of cancer and terminal patients suffering needless pain for there to be continuing confusion as to when it is appropriate and how it is to be attained.

A bill introduced by prime sponsor Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, could solve some of the biggest problems identified by medical marijuana proponents.

"There is much ambiguity around our state's current medical marijuana law that is resulting in inconsistent enforcement throughout the state," Kohl-Welles said in a statement.

"Creating a statutory and regulatory structure for licensing growers and dispensaries will allow us to provide for an adequate, safe, consistent and secure source of the medicine for qualifying patients, address public safety concerns and establish statewide uniformity in the implementation of the law."

It's a bill containing the kinds of specifics that should take away some of the frustration in the lives of people whose lives already are more difficult than most.

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