Gregoire threatens to veto pot law A veto threat by Gov. Chris Gregoire left lawmakers and activists scrambling Friday to figure out how to save a major overhaul of Washington’s medical marijuana law.
Bills passed by the House and Senate would provide some arrest protection for medical marijuana patients and provide a system for licensing marijuana growing and dispensaries.
But Gregoire said she would veto any legislation that requires state employees to implement a licensing system, after the Justice Department warned her that the employees could be liable for breaking federal law.
“If I have my state employees intimately involved in a commercialization of growing operations, they could be subject to being called before the court as criminal defendant,” Gregoire said Friday. “I will not put state employees in that position.”
Gregoire also said she would work with lawmakers to address problems that sick people have legally obtaining marijuana.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, a prime sponsor of the legislation, said she was disappointed.
“Personally, I have a very difficult time envisioning federal agents coming to arrest and try to prosecute state employees who are sitting in office buildings processing licensing applications,” she said. “I can’t fathom that would happen.”
A conference committee was expected to reconcile differences in versions of the legislation passed by the House and Senate but could also make changes in light of Gregoire’s comments. Kohl-Welles said options include hammering out a compromise bill in conference or just passing the dispensary language and waiting to see exactly what Gregoire vetoes.
Dispensaries are neither specifically allowed nor forbidden by Washington’s medical marijuana law passed in 1998. Nevertheless, scores of them have popped up around the state to sell cannabis to qualifying patients – a development that troubles police and prosecutors, who argue that the operations could mask criminal activity.
Activists say that many patients are too sick to grow their own marijuana or can’t afford to have someone set up a grow operation for them, as contemplated in the law, so having collective grow operations and dispensaries are the best options.
Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and Spokane U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby wrote to Gregoire on Thursday, a day after Gregoire requested the DOJ’s opinion on Washington’s legislation. They warned that the bills would permit large-scale marijuana cultivation and distribution and thus undermine the federal government’s anti-drug efforts.
“Accordingly, the department could consider civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who set up marijuana growing facilities and dispensaries as they will be doing so in violation of federal law,” their letter said. “Others who knowingly facilitate the actions of the licensees, including property owners, landlords and financiers should also know that their conduct violates federal law.”
Some marijuana activists said they were baffled that the governor would balk at signing the legislation. Several other states have created dispensary licensing schemes without interference by the DOJ, they noted.
“She’s making a mistake,” said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. “The letter from the U.S. attorneys says that they can prosecute, not that they will prosecute. In Maine, in Rhode Island, in New Jersey, those states all went ahead and set up dispensary system. They haven’t received any threats or reaction from federal law enforcement.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has promoted the state’s legislation, echoed that.
Gregoire said it didn’t matter: “I don’t care what any other state does.”
Philip Dawdy, a spokesman for the Washington Cannabis Association, said he hoped to have a better idea by early next week regarding how the legislation might be changed to assuage the governor.
“It seems like what the feds are saying is they don’t want something that looks or smells like a commercial operation,” he said. “So the question is how do you do a quasi-dispensary system without it being what the feds call a commercial operation? Call them dispensaries or cooperatives or collectives, but we’ve got to have some kind of place patients can go for safe access.”
Seattle medical marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt suggested that patients might be better off if the legislation doesn’t become law. Among other problems, he said, is that some provisions would give cities authority over zoning, taxing and other requirements, such as possibly demanding that dispensaries have exorbitant insurance policies to do business.