Medicinal pot patients might get protections

Medical marijuana patients in Washington could have protection from arrest in 2012 if the Legislature adopts a bill making reforms to the voter-approved law authorizing use of the drug for some terminal and debilitating illnesses.

Although the law has been in place for more than 12 years, many patients still complain they are harassed by police, said Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

Delvin pushed for the bill to include a voluntary registry that would give medical marijuana patients a card that they can show to police rather than submitting to searches of their homes or property.

"It allows us to know what's going on out there," said Delvin, a former Richland police officer who retired in 2006. "It gives law enforcement an easier tool. They can have confidence in the registry. If someone has a card, case closed."

Philip Dawdy, spokesman for the recently formed Washington Cannabis Association, said one of the problems with the original medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in 1998 is that it lacked clear-cut definitions to help cities, counties and law enforcement agencies implement and enforce the law's intent.

Different parts of Washington have interpreted the state 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 others have shut dispensaries down.

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

But the bill introduced by prime sponsor Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, this week 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."

The bill doesn't change who can be authorized to use marijuana as medical treatment -- the criteria includes patients suffering from diseases or disorders such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, anorexia and glaucoma, or those experiencing "intractable pain" that standard treatments or medications cannot relieve.

It also does not change who can authorize someone to use medical marijuana.

What it does is provide protection from arrest -- the existing law merely provides an affirmative defense to charges of marijuana possession for authorized patients -- and allows collectives and dispensaries.

The existing law doesn't address collectives or dispensaries at all, which has led to the varying interpretations.

Some jurisdictions -- such as Richland -- take the approach that the law's failure to address collectives or dispensaries makes them illegal. Others take the opposite approach.

The bill would create licensing systems for growing and dispensing medical marijuana, with growers licensed through the state Department of Agriculture, while the Department of Health would oversee dispensary licenses.

w Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com