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In approving a sweeping medical-marijuana bill yesterday, state representatives thought they were voting on a bill that would bring a gray industry into the light

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Medical-Marijuana Bill Is Stripped of Patient Protections; Sponsor Jeanne Kohl-Welles Declares Herself "Unhappy"

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In approving a sweeping medical-marijuana bill yesterday, state representatives thought they were voting on a bill that would bring a gray industry into the light and finally protect patients from arrest. What many didn't realize is that a last-minute amendment strips the bill of key patient protections, according to Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, author of the original bill that has already been passed by her chamber. "I'm very unhappy," the Seattle Democrat says.

The amendment (see pdf), introduced by an Enumclaw Democrat and former cop named Christopher Hurst, specifies that patients will not have arrest protection unless they sign up with a voluntary registry to be run by the state Department of Health. Many patients, however, are wary of officially identifying themselves as pot users. And even patients who do register would be subject to police searches.

"I know Rep. Hurst wanted to encourage people to sign up for the registry," Kohl-Welles says. She speculates, however, that patients' continuing vulnerability to searches will serve as a "disincentive."

"I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do about it," Kohl-Welles says. The bill now heads back to the Senate for final approval. Kohl-Welles could encourage her colleagues to return the bill to the House for further tinkering. But she acknowledges that doing so could jeopardize the legislation, which does a lot of other things besides address arrest protection--including legalize dispensaries, something activists have long sought. The Senate could also request a conference between legislators from both chambers to work out the differences.

At least one activist isn't holding his breath. Dispensary owner and provocateur Steve Sarich, proclaiming that the House version of the bill will "eviscerate" patient protections and deny patients their "civil rights," plans to stage a demonstration this afternoon outside the offices of the ACLU, which has been closely involved with Kohl-Welles in drafting and lobbying for the legislation.

Douglas Hiatt, a crusading lawyer known for defending medical-marijuana patients, says he's also exasperated by the latest version of the bill, which he says sets up a system of "first- and second-class citizens" depending on whether or not patients register with the state.

Not only that, Hiatt points to another amendment (see pdf) that gives local jurisdictions the authority to set zoning, tax, and other regulations on pot production and distribution. That's on top of regulations to be set by the state DOH and Department of Agriculture. Hiatt says he believes the amendment will create extreme variations throughout the state, with some jurisdictions setting "exorbitant taxes" while others offer tax incentives to encourage the pot industry.

Yet, really, nobody knows everything the bill will do (assuming a version ultimately passes). It's so big and so complex that even the most ardent activists are still absorbing the details, and there are bound to be unintended consequences that neither supporters nor detractors have yet dreamed up.

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