Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Would Be Legal Under New Proposed Bill

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Just months after a proposed initiative legalizing marijuana failed to qualify for the fall ballot, pot is back again on the political agenda. This time, the ball is in the legislature's court. With a new session beginning January, several legislators are poised to introduce bills that would liberalize pot laws, whether by legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries or by legalizing pot altogether.

The legislature took a run at marijuana in the last session, of course. One bill proposed outright legalization and another decriminalization (which would have punished pot users with a ticket rather than jail time). Both failed to make it out of committee. So a new attempt at legalization, due to be sponsored for the second time by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle), might not seem to have the best chance.

Sen Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), who is considering a companion bill in the Senate, argues that there's more momentum now given the national attention focused on the issue (such as the pot legalization initiative currently on the ballot in California). We'll see.

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Kohl-Welles also intends to introduce a bill focused just on medical marijuana. That might be more winnable given that both patients and law enforcement officers have griped for years about the vague wording in the state's current medical marijuana law.

Although the law sanctions the use of medical pot, it does not protect patients from arrest. Rather, it says that if patients are arrested and prosecuted, they can present an "affirmative defense" at trial based on their medical need for pot. Medical marijuana advocates complain that numerous legitimate and ailing users have therefore been dragged needlessly through the courts. That would be prevented by Kohl-Welles' bill, which says definitively that medical marijuana patients would not be arrested.

Patients as well as law enforcement also point out that the law makes it exceedingly difficult for qualified users to actually get their hands on pot. Dispensaries--that is operations that distribute large quantities of pot to numerous patients--are not legal, according to most people's interpretation of the law. They have nonetheless proliferated--the most high-profile example being the dispensary run by Steve Sarich, the gun-toting provocateur who fought off armed robbers at his Kirkland home last year.

Kohl-Welles says her bill would not simply legalize dispensaries, it would require them to be non-profits and to be licensed through the Department of Health. Growers would be licensed separately through the Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, Senator Jerome Delvin (R-Richland) says he is considering a medical marijuana bill. His would create a statewide registry of medical marijuana patients that law enforcement could use to confirm that someone has a valid doctor's recommendation for pot. He says he has not worked out the details--the biggest question being whether the state or some other organization would run the system-- but that it would have to be one that both patients and police officers felt comfortable using, a tall order.

Sarich is himself unveiling what he calls a "voluntary" registry. He's got mock up of identification cards (pictured above) that he intends to sell to patients who want to use the system and can supply a doctor's recommendation for pot. He also has created a prototype of a website that both law enforcement and dispensaries could use to authenticate patients. Given his controversial profile, though, the big question is whether patients, law enforcement and doctors will buy into it.

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