Gregoire praises medical pot bill

Senate: Revamped legislation would empower local governments

May 6, 2011 

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Thursday praised the medical-marijuana overhaul developing in the state Senate, the offspring of the legislation she gutted last week.

The latest draft leans heavily on city and county rules rather than state regulation. Gregoire said it’s “absolutely mindful” of her reason for rejecting most of the previous version: concern that state employees might face federal prosecution for handing out licenses to marijuana dispensaries.

But before the topic comes up in the ongoing 30-day special session, Gregoire said she wants the leaders of the Legislature’s four party caucuses to agree it can be considered.

At least one is balking. “Passing legislation dealing with marijuana laws is not the priority for House Republicans,” House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said in a statement. The priority, he said: Balance the budget and reform the state-run insurance system for injured workers.

Democratic majorities might push ahead without bipartisan agreement, hoping it survives another trip to Gregoire’s desk.

The author of the developing proposal, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, said the real question is whether it has the votes to pass, not whether everyone agrees.

“I’m going to look at the majority of the Legislature,” said Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat. “I’d be surprised if the governor would veto something she likes because one of the four caucus leaders says he doesn’t want it to go forward.”

Under her measure, Kohl-Welles says, nonprofit cooperatives of patients could grow marijuana and sell it to their members – if local governments allow such operations within their boundaries. Cities and counties could decide where cooperatives could locate, or choose to ban them altogether.

Medical-marijuana advocates want a legal, regulated market for the drug, something that wasn’t spelled out when voters authorized it for medical use in 1998. Local officials are looking for direction from the Legislature about what to do with dispensaries selling the drug.

Advocates’ worries only heightened when a key underpinning of dispensaries’ legal justification was eliminated by the law that Gregoire signed after vetoing key parts of it.

Kohl-Welles’s proposal would address sales without creating a system of state licensing, while it would also give patients protection from arrest in return for joining a state registry. Sheriffs and prosecutors largely support the registry but not the push for regulation.

“As long as the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 (drug), it’s a problematic issue for local governments to license or zone or regulate,” Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said.

Gregoire has pledged to press the federal government to reclassify the drug so it can be prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists.

If the Senate passes the measure, majority Democrats in the House are willing to take it up. The lawmakers working on it would be different from those negotiating the state budget, Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said, so the two could get attention at the same time.

“If they can work out an agreement that can get done fairly quickly,” Sullivan said, “I don’t think it’ll be a distraction.”

Local jurisdictions wondering how to handle an increasing number of medical marijuana dispensaries, including Tacoma, are hopeful revised legislation can be worked out.

On Thursday, Tacoma City Hearing Examiner Rodney Kerslake agreed to a 60-day continuance on the appeals cases of dozens of local dispensaries that face having their city business licenses revoked.

“With indications now that the Legislature still may be dealing with this (medical marijuana) issue, we agreed to set a date for another status conference call in 60 days,” Kerslake said.

The continuance buys both the city and dispensaries time, with the hope that state lawmakers come up with a new medical marijuana law that renders the local appeals cases moot.

But, Kerslake added, “if the Legislature does nothing, the legal issues will still need to be determined.”

Announcement of the continuance among the crowd of about 100 protesters outside Tacoma City Hall Thursday was met with a cascade of cheers and sign waving.

James Lucas, operator of Tacoma Cross – one of the original eight dispensaries that had been issued a cease-and-desist letter by the city’s licensing department – hailed Thursday’s continuance as a victory of sorts.

Staff writer Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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