Spliffed

The Legislature's medical-marijuana law runs afoul of reality.

LEGISLATIVE HEARINGS are frequently drowsy affairs, and the afternoon session of the Senate Committee on Health and Long-Term Care on February 12 promised to be no livelier than most. But a citizen activist changed all that in a hurry.

The hearing was to take public testimony on Senate Bill 5176: "an act relating to rules to implement the medical marijuana law." Citizen activist Joanna McKee of the medical marijuana supply cooperative Green Cross unwittingly livened things up by showing the room the enormous amount of pot the Legislature was preparing to allow an ill individual to possess.

Until McKee's performance, the bill, introduced for the third straight session by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle, was hardly controversial. Its purpose was merely to allow the state Department of Health to define how much marijuana a physician might legally prescribe a patient to relieve pain, nausea, and anxiety due to a diagnosed medical condition, to carry out the public will expressed in Initiative 692 passed in November 1998. A substantial number of members of the committee were known to sympathize with the bill; after initial doubts, law enforcement agencies had begun to rally round it; even the governor's highly conservative Council on Substance Abuse had come around. Of the 18 people signed up to testify that day, not one planned to oppose the bill.

The bill itself is an effort to win a numbers game: The authors of Initiative 692 declined to specify what a "reasonable" amount of therapeutic marijuana might mean, instead referring to allowing patients to legally possess "a 60-day supply." That ambiguity has created controversies between law enforcement agencies and medical marijuana users. SB 5176 attempts to clarify the situation by instructing the state Department of Health to take existing federal guidelines into consideration in defining what constitutes a legal supply. "All I was trying to do was show the committee what the Feds are dispensing to patients in its program," says McKee. "My point was, whatever we do in Washington, it shouldn't be less than what the [federal] government is allowing people to have right now."

To allow the legislators to visualize her point, McKee held up a canister sent to her by one of the eight patients still receiving marijuana from the federal government's nearly phased-out medical marijuana experiment. "What happens is, the marijuana is grown at a federal site in Mississippi and shipped to the North Carolina Research Triangle Institute, where they roll it into cigarettes and pack it into these canisters and send it off to pharmacies to be picked up by authorized patients," explains McKee. Each canister constitutes a 30-day supply, so Washington patients, under the rule proposed in SB 5176, would be able to possess double the amount in the canister, or 1 pound, 11ć Żunces.

In terms of volume, the can McKee held up that day was pretty impressive, too; so big that you'd have trouble packing a purported 60-day supply into a volume the size of a half-gallon milk carton. Anybody, sick or not, who can go through that much ganja in 60 days without lots of enthusiastic help is one serious viper indeed, mon.

And, in those "street prices" so beloved of cops and journalists, that amount of Mary Jane would go, depending on grade and season, for somewhere between $8,500 and $11,000.

SOMETHING CLEARLY is out of whack here, and it's not too hard to figure out what. For the last 40 years, since marijuana became a significant cash crop (the third biggest in America, it's estimated, and easily the most profitable), private growers have been hybridizing and cloning and genetically engineering their weed for ever-greater punch and productivity. But the bureaucrats at the fed's Lazy M Ranch in Mississippi haven't had the financial incentive to do the same. Consequence: Street bud these days averages somewhere between 10 and 20 times as potent as the dirt weed the feds dish out.

No politician so far has publicly admitted that therefore the whole notion of basing "a 60-day supply" on what the feds pass out is dangerously out-of-date. Instead the joint just keeps getting handed along.

On March 9, the full Senate passed Kohl-Welles' bill and passed it to the House, where it breezed through the Health Care Committee last Tuesday and on to Rules. Its fate there is uncertain; it takes the OK of both co-chairs of the committee to move the bill out for floor debate, and Republican co-chair Clyde Ballard of East Wenatchee is not widely known as a proponent of liberalizing drug laws, even in compassionate cases.

Even if Ballard recognizes that his own law-and-order-oriented constituency is beginning to lean toward strictly controlled legalization of marijuana, it may not do the state's citizens much good in the short run. Rather than confront the growing sentiment at the state level for changes in marijuana law, the feds are trying to reverse state laws that conflict with the federal definition of marijuana as a Class I (no redeeming medical value) "controlled substance." The same day SB 5176 moved onto the Rules Committee, the Supreme Court heard U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op. Try to visualize anything useful coming out of that quarter. Go on, try.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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