Washington Legislature aims to clarify legality of medicinal pot

Patients with terminal illnesses and chronic pain have battled the gray areas in the state's medical marijuana laws since voters approved the initiative giving them access to the drug back in 1998.

Different parts of Washington have interpreted the law in different ways -- some allow patients to come together in collectives to grow their plants. Some don't.

Some let patients obtain medical marijuana through dispensaries, while other places have shut dispensaries down.

It's all a matter of who has reading the law, and what they read into it.

"Basically you have two kinds of public officials -- those who are for it and those who are against it," said Chet Biggerstaff, a Richland resident and member of the Three Rivers Collective. "But this is one state."

The Three Rivers Collective has bumped heads with city governments in an attempt to create a collective where patients could come together to grow their plants in a secure environment, and to open a dispensary where those who can't grow their own can buy medical marijuana.

They have been told by Richland and Kennewick that the law doesn't allow what they want, even though collectives have been allowed in places such as Seattle and Spokane.

But the law could become a little more black-and-white if the Legislature, in the coming 2011 session, adopts a bill being drafted by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, in cooperation with patients, advocates and a number of other groups with an interest in the issue.

"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 said.

Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, also has been involved with discussions about the bill, but his message system on Friday said he was traveling and unavailable.

Kohl-Welles said one of her top priorities in drafting the bill -- now in its eighth version, with a ninth soon to come -- is to protect authorized medical marijuana patients from arrest.

The initiative as written in 1998 didn't do that, but rather gave patients an affirmative defense to use if charged with possessing or growing marijuana.

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

Late last month, police in Seattle -- perhaps the most liberal city in the state when it comes to medical marijuana policy -- broke open the door of a disabled veteran and authorized medical marijuana patient who was growing two cannabis plants in his apartment.

"Patients need to be able to access cannabis without fear of having their doors taken down in the middle of the night," said Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. "Even the threat that might happen to you is very stressful -- to live in fear daily. ... People who are very sick don't need that additional stress."

Other parts of the bill would define collectives and dispensaries -- something absent from the law now -- and create licensing systems for growing and dispensing medical marijuana.

Growers would be licensed through the state Department of Agriculture, while the Board of Pharmacy would oversee dispensary licenses.

Holcomb said the bill's drafters also are talking about a voluntary registration system that would allow authorized patients to register if they choose, and give police a tool to check whether someone is a legitimate patient before arresting them.

Right now, Washington is the only state that allows medical marijuana that doesn't have some kind of registry.

But ACLU of Washington wants to make sure that patients' privacy is protected and that registry data wouldn't be used by the federal government to find and prosecute patients, she said.

"We're trying to find a middle ground," Holcomb said. "Is there a way that we can require law enforcement to take some steps to determine whether somebody is a patient before resorting to traditional law enforcement tactics? That's the tension we're grappling with right now. ... There are some protections we can build into having a registry here. It might be a trade-off worth considering."

Biggerstaff said he'd be reluctant to support a registry.

"There needs to be a way to verify, but patients won't get behind a state-run system because they don't trust the government," he said.

He said too many patients have faced not only the threat of arrest but a lack of protection from police when criminals break into patients' homes to steal their plants.

Biggerstaff said he didn't sleep for weeks this fall because someone was trying to jump his fence every night to get to his cannabis plants.

That's where the collective idea comes in -- with a collective, patients could all grow their plants at a secure location instead of individually in their homes.

He said the Three Rivers Collective will return to the Richland City Council on Tuesday to plead with the city to let them open a dispensary.

With legislation coming, Biggerstaff believes it's only a matter of time before collectives and dispensaries are written into the law, and Richland could take a compassionate step now by letting the Three Rivers Collective operate.

"It comes back to the city," he said. "All they have to do is say yes."

The city previously has taken the position that because the law doesn't specifically allow collectives, that they are illegal.

Mayor John Fox said he believes it's unlikely the council would change that position without a new law being passed.

"From previous discussions we've had on this, I haven't seen any evidence our council wants to take an initiative on this," he said. "It is properly a state legislative issue."