Yesterday's showdown in Tacoma over the city's medical marijuana dispensaries all but guarantees that the Legislature will finally attempt to resolve the question of whether such business are--or should be-- legal. After the city initially threatened to shut the dispensaries down, it agreed last night to hold off until the end of the coming legislative session. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) has already drafted a bill (see pdf) that proposes legalizing dispensaries. A number of fellow legislators, including a former cop and Republican senator named Jerome Delvin, are working with her. "There's momentum," says Kohl-Welles.
But the debate may get fiesty, even within pro-medical marijuana circles.
A just-founded group representing medical marijuana businesses plans to draft an alternative bill and seek a legislative sponsor for it, according to Philip Dawdy, who helped get the new Washington Cannabis Association off the ground.
Dawdy, who also serves as vice-chair of the advocacy organization Sensible Washington, says he can't yet release details of the planned bill. But he does say that the two to three dozen business in the group are highly critical of Kohl-Welles' proposal. One big objection is that the bill would leave it to the state Department of Health to set new rules that would regulate dispensaries. The DOH, says Dawdy, "is a bureaucracy, with no knowledge or expertise on the issue."
Another problem with Kohl-Welles bill, in Dawdy's view, is a provision that would protect medical marijuana patients from arrest--but only if they consented to a search of their premises. "For what other medication do you have to give up your 4th and 5th Amendment rights?" he asks.
On the other side of the spectrum, Rep. Christopher Hurst (D-Enumcluw) says he believes many legislators will oppose any bill that favors dispensaries. "You only need to look south" to California, he says, to realize that the dispensary business is a "sham," a "nightmare," and a "disaster." Instead of serving people with real medical needs, he contends, California's ubiquitous dispensaries sell pot "to anyone who walks in the door." He says that's why Los Angeles, among other jurisdictions, are currently cracking down on dispensaries, even while a broad pot legalization initiative is on the ballot.
Washington's dispensaries may currently be more restrained, Hurst concedes, but he argues that legalization would open the door to California excess.
Who wins this battle may in part depend on what committees the bills go through. Hurst says he expects that any bill dealing with marijuana would, in the House, go through the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which he chairs. But Kohl-Welles says she believes medical marijuana bills would go through health-related committees in both the House and the Senate. It's up to the majority leaders in both chambers to decide.
Another factor is the November election. If he is reelected, Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) is likely to be a leading player in the fight for dispensary legalization, but he's locked into a tough fight with Republican Kevin Haistings.