Tacoma councilwoman argues for medicinal pot law overhaul
JORDAN SCHRADER; Staff writer
The voter-approved medical-marijuana law has so many pitfalls for patients, even a couple of pillars of the Tacoma community see something to fear in it.
“Picture this: Local minister and deputy mayor arrested for having medical marijuana in their possession,” Lauren Walker said as she testified to state lawmakers Thursday on a proposed overhaul of the law.
Walker was describing her husband, the Rev. Marcus Walker, and herself, a Tacoma city councilwoman. Drawn into the strange world of medicinal cannabis just two weeks ago as part of her husband’s cancer treatment, she’s speaking up in Olympia in support of more protections from arrest for legitimate patients.
A proposal that would create those protections, and legalize the marijuana dispensaries that have cropped up in what advocates see as a gray area in the law, has broad bipartisan support in the state Senate.
But it could stumble on opposition that has been quietly building among key law enforcement officials. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys put forward an alternative proposal Thursday that seeks to avoid what Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist calls “the Starbucks approach” to the proliferation of medicinal marijuana.
Under the 1998 ballot measure, patients can grow marijuana for their own use or designate a provider to grow on their behalf, as long as providers only serve one patient at a time.
Entrepreneurs have interpreted that to mean they can serve one patient after another in retail-style dispensaries.
Enforcement of the law has been uneven. The Tacoma City Council in October decided to suspend the city’s attempt to shut down eight dispensaries until the Legislature could clarify the law.
The council is looking to a bill authored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle, which would license dispensaries and producers. Alternatively, up to 25 patients could band together and grow up to 99 plants in a so-called collective garden.
Today, patients have a legal defense against prosecution, but advocates say that hasn’t stopped police from harassing and arresting legitimate patients. The bill would head off arrests in a couple of ways. It would set up a voluntary registry of patients that law enforcement could access. It would give arrest protection to patients with a valid order from a medical provider and up to 24 ounces of marijuana or 15 plants.
Patients would also get protections from discrimination in employment and housing.
Kohl-Welles said bringing regulation to medical marijuana would end an underground system that has encouraged criminal activity.
“We’ve had shootouts, we’ve had armed robbery, burglary. We can’t have that going on. We need a regulated system,” she said.
PROSECUTORS, SHERIFFS OPPOSE
Lindquist agreed changes are needed but said the proposal takes the wrong approach.
“The bill as a whole seems to be more focused on creating a medical-marijuana industry than focused on providing medical marijuana,” he said. “We want to keep the focus on providing medical marijuana, because that’s what the voters passed.”
Prosecutors joined in the call for a registry and are seeking more limited forms of collective growing and arrest protection.
But they don’t want dispensaries legalized. In their proposal, a designated provider would be banned from serving multiple patients in the same 15-day period, a rule that is also in Kohl-Welles’ bill but would not apply to dispensaries.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs supports the prosecutors’ proposal, Lindquist said. Association director Don Pierce didn’t return phone calls Thursday.
The opposition from law enforcement groups could be a major hurdle. But the bill also has strong support, at least from the health committee where it sits now.
Chairwoman Karen Keiser, D-Kent, and a majority of the committee have signed on as co-sponsors. It’s backed by Democrats such as Kohl-Welles and Republicans such as Sen. Jerome Delvin of Richland.
The committee heard a long parade of mostly supportive testimony from the public, led off by Walker, who painted a picture of medical marijuana users as normal folks mostly unfamiliar with marijuana.
“It was very minimal,” she said of her previous pot exposure. “A joint was passed around a party when I was around 16, and then my Marxist relatives in northern Vermont offered marijuana cookies to my husband and me in the early 1980s. My husband threw up for three hours afterward.”
But after her husband’s treatment for melanoma left him with pain and complete loss of appetite, she said, they decided they would try anything. After a pickup at a downtown dispensary, the couple went to a family reunion and asked the young people in the room to help him figure out how to smoke it.
“His 87-year-old mother, desperate for her son’s survival, was cheering him on while examining the pipe to figure out if the seniors in her pottery class might be able to make one for him.”
Not all patients and providers are on board. Medical marijuana activist Steve Sarich wore a button to the hearing that said “No Patient Registry. We are NOT sex offenders.”
He’s worried law enforcement will use the registry to target, rather than avoid, patients.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/politics