Washington senators moved forward Wednesday night with establishing more regulation on the state's medical marijuana system, approving a bill with changes that would give patients greater protection from arrest and bring the supply chain out of a legal gray area.
After lengthy debate, senators approved the bill on a 29-20 vote. The measure now moves to the House.
The bill addresses a conundrum in Washington’s system: It’s technically legal for a patient to possess pot, but the proper ways of getting the drug can be unclear.
Current state law does not allow for marijuana sales, instead saying that patients must grow marijuana themselves or designate a caregiver to grow it for them. But growing marijuana can be expensive and difficult, particularly for very ill people.
That has prompted many patients to form groups that grow pot collectively, contributing dues to help cover costs. In the Seattle area, some collectives also have distribution sites — called dispensaries — that serve thousands of members.
Current state law is silent on such collectives, and prosecutors around the state have taken differing views of whether they’re permissible. The state Health Department maintains they’re not. At the same time, the state Revenue Department began seeking sales-tax revenue last month from dispensaries around the state.
The measure further clarifies who can grow and sell the product by establishing licenses. Under this bill, the Department of Agriculture would license growers and the Department of Health will supervise dispensaries.
The bill also creates a registry accessible to law enforcement where authorized user can enroll.
“My intention is to ensure patients who are qualified have safe, secure reliable source for the medication that works for them,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who shared that her best friend used marijuana illegally while coping with chemotherapy.
Senators approved several amendments to the bill that supporters didn’t want, including banning advertisement of dispensaries in newspapers, shifting the power of approving locations to cities, and requiring dispensaries to be nonprofit entities.
Opponents, including some country prosecutors and police, say that the bill moves the state closer to legalizing marijuana use and makes enforcement of recreational use of marijuana more difficult.