OLYMPIA, Wash. - House lawmakers approved a bill Monday to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and give greater legal protection to patients with a prescription for cannabis.
The bill, originally sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, aims to bring medical marijuana dispensaries out of the legal gray area in which they operate under current law.
It establishes a licensing process for cannabis producers and sets up regulations for dispensaries, including a provision that they must be located at least 500 feet away from a school.
Supporters say the measure will help patients who suffer from chronic pain and other conditions by allowing them easier access to the drug and giving them more security in their legal status.
The bill creates arrest protection for physicians who prescribe medical marijuana and for the patients who use it in compliance with possession limitations: Patients may own no more than 15 plants and 24 ounces of medical cannabis and must have proof of their registration as a legal medical user.
Under the bill, groups of patients would also be allowed to collaborate on community gardens, which could have up to 99 plants. Only qualified patients would be allowed to use the marijuana grown in these gardens.
Opponents argue that this moves the state one step closer to full-blown legalization and doesn't set up enough safeguards to keep marijuana out of the hands of children.
"It fosters ambiguity," said Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane. "We are confusing kids, we are confusing the law, and we are making it harder on law enforcement when the budgets we're writing are reducing law enforcement in this state."
In 1998, Washington voters passed an initiative to allow people with debilitating medical conditions access to medical marijuana. Those conditions include "intractable pain," as well as disorders like chemotherapy-induced nausea among cancer patients, Hepatitis C and glaucoma.
But the initiative did not set up a clear legal way for patients to access cannabis.
Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which means that though state law permits medical marijuana, all users are still violating federal law.
Last week, U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington Michael Ormsby issued a statement saying that landlords could face foreclosure of their properties if they rented out to medical marijuana dispensaries. He said this is to encourage Washington to follow federal law. Some shops in Spokane County have already been shut down by the police.
But for the past two years, the Obama administration has followed a policy of not interfering with medical marijuana dispensaries as long as they're in compliance with state law. This bill aims to bring Washington dispensaries legal protection from both state and federal law enforcement agents.
"We owe it to the people of this state to be compassionate," said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, in support of a bill she says provides much-needed relief for people with chronic pain.
The bill inspired contentious debate that crossed party lines, as representatives from across the board worried about potentially increasing access to the general population and not just qualified patients.
Opponents proposed a number of unsuccessful amendments aimed at limiting the number of dispensaries around the state and keeping them far away from schools, churches and youth centers.
Philip Dawdy, media and policy director for the Washington Cannabis association, said that with the House's approval of the bill, "We are very close to having a state law that clarifies things and makes a law that people can actually follow."
If Kohl-Welles' bill goes on to final passage, dispensaries will still be in a bit of a legal haze until January 2013 as the state Department of Health and Department of Agriculture go through their 18-month rule-making process, Dawdy said. Still, he continued, the bill will provide dispensaries with an affirmative defense in court, which they don't have under current law.
The bill now returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote on the House's amendments.