SEATTLE - This fall, sober public servants will convene meetings across Washington state to answer a pressing question: How much marijuana constitutes a two-month supply?
What may seem like an odd question for straight-laced government types to tackle is a serious attempt to shore up the state's medical marijuana law, which has been around for nearly a decade without defining the 60-day supply patients are allowed to have on hand.
Now, after years of attempts to amend the law, the state Health Department has been ordered to spell out how much marijuana makes up that theoretical two-month cache.
Prosecutors and police generally support the change, saying it should help officers determine whom to arrest and whom to leave alone.
The American Civil Liberties Union and some state lawmakers think it could be the beginning of even broader reforms by the state's Democratic-controlled Legislature.
But some patients wish the state wouldn't bother, spooked the government will make the limits too restrictive and cause more arrests for people in frail health.
If the law is going to be changed, dissenters would rather see stronger protection from arrest or an allowance for group growing operations. Defining the 60-day supply, they say, is a do-nothing compromise aimed mostly at pleasing law enforcement.
"Once again, politics have trumped patients' rights. Once again, politics have trumped science," said Dale Rogers, head of Seattle's Compassion in Action Patient Network, which distributes medical marijuana.
Washington's medical marijuana law was approved by nearly 60 percent of voters in 1998, following closely behind California in the first wave of such measures nationwide.
Under the law, doctors are allowed to recommend marijuana for people suffering from "intractable pain" and several serious diseases, including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
Marijuana patients can be prosecuted but may avoid conviction by proving a legitimate medical need. As is the case anywhere in the country, nothing in state statute shields a patient from prosecution under federal law, which does not recognize medical uses for marijuana.
Unlike the 11 other laws that protect medical marijuana users from a state criminal conviction, Washington has never set a specific limit for the amount of pot each patient is allowed to have.
In Oregon, patients are allowed up to 24 ounces of pot and two dozen plants at different stages of growth. New Mexico, the latest state to pass a medical marijuana law, plans to allow up to six ounces of marijuana, four mature plants and three immature seedlings.
"Law enforcement officers in the field were put in the position of throwing their hands up in the air and saying, 'We'll let the judge and the jury sort that out,' " said Alison Holcomb, director of the state ACLU's Marijuana Education Project.
Confusion in law
An activist group highlighted the confusion around Washington's law last year when it asked county officials how many plants medical marijuana patients were allowed for growing their own supply.
One county said the answer was easy: zero. Others had formulas that accounted for the different stages of plant growth.
"The truth is, nobody's number had any legal precedence or greater validity than your number or my number," said Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
In some cases, the gray area has served as a legal shield, allowing patients and their doctors to argue in court over how much marijuana they need, said Douglas Hiatt, a defense lawyer who specializes in medical marijuana cases. "We can't have an outside health authority dictate to our doctors how much a patient should use," Rogers said.
Adding to the debate, marijuana varies in potency, and different users use different amounts.
Ric Smith, a longtime medical marijuana user from Seattle, typically lights up before meals to treat the nausea that comes with his HIV medication.
In any given week, Smith burns through anywhere from seven grams to about an ounce. Without it, even the smallest disturbance can be too much to handle, he says.
"When you're at the top of the roller coaster and you just start over the other edge? It's that feeling, 24 hours a day," Smith said. "A pin drop, a bird flying by, a butterfly landing on your nose - anything will make you throw up."
Hiatt and others who will lobby health regulators this fall will cite a marijuana dosing study led by Dr. Gregory Carte, a University of Washington rehabilitation-medicine specialist.
Following the study's guidelines, Hiatt said, patients should be allowed anywhere from a half-pound to 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana in two months. If the Health Department goes drastically lower, Hiatt said a lawsuit could follow.
"I know the people of Washington state didn't want lawyers and judges and prosecutors arguing about little piddly details like this," Hiatt said. "Is the person sick? Yes. Are they using it with a doctor's permission? Yes. Then leave them alone."