Health & Fitness

State's medical pot law puts DOC in a bind

Several times a week for the past two years, felons on supervision have asked the Department of Corrections for special permission to use medical marijuana.

Some of the requests, which are signed by doctors, are vague, listing just “chronic pain” as the reason for the drug. But others describe agony: anorexia from AIDS or chronic vomiting from chemotherapy.

The state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has turned down nearly all of them. Out of 320 requests, seven people have gotten permission – a select group that includes a forger wasting away from AIDS and a grandmother with fibromyalgia.

Squeezed by conflicting duties of policing felons while not meddl- ing with their medical treatment, the agency has been swept into the complex and ongoing debate about the state’s 12-year-old, voter-approved medical-marijuana law.

Pressure on the DOC to permit felons to use medical marijuana is likely to intensify as the medical-pot industry flourishes and polls show public opinion increasingly favoring legalization. New patients are being authorized daily, and dozens of new marijuana dispensaries are eager to serve them.

The state is even getting in on the action, announcing earlier this month an attempt to tax medical-marijuana retail sales. Advocates for medical pot estimate at least 100,000 patients statewide are approved for its use; about 5,000 people make their living off medicinal pot.

‘AUTHORIZATION MILLS’?

The lifeblood of the industry is doctors’ notes recommending medical pot for specific patients. Possession of marijuana is still illegal, but a note provides a valid defense if a patient is criminally charged.

A small but frustrated group of advocates, attorneys, physicians and patients says DOC is ignoring the state medical-marijuana law by substituting its judgment for that of doctors who recommend the drug. The policy, they say, is ripe for a legal challenge, although none has been filed.

DOC takes a jaundiced view of many of those notes recommending medical marijuana. A vast majority of recommendations for DOC offenders comes from just three or four clinics that are pot-friendly “authorization mills,” according to the agency.

“Frankly, most mainstream clinicians tend to gravitate toward traditional and conventional treatments, rather than marijuana,” said Dr. Steve Hammond, DOC’s chief doctor.

Doug Hiatt, a Seattle attorney who represents medical-marijuana patients, said DOC “is playing doctor, and they’re doing a bad job of it. They’re messing around with sick people’s medications. It’s sickening.”

For a decade after passage of the 1998 initiative, medical marijuana was a side issue at DOC.

The law prohibits medicinal pot in prisons. Those on post-prison supervision found corrections officers sometimes ignored positive drug tests if the offender had a doctor’s recommendation.

In 2008, the law was changed to expand the type of medical professionals who can recommend marijuana, and to clarify how much pot a patient can possess. That prompted a boom in clinics that authorize medical marijuana — and in requests from DOC offenders to use it.

That has put DOC field officers in a bind: Do they uphold no-drug provisions in criminal sentences and prioritize a duty to help offenders stay clean? Or do they show mercy to sick offenders with doctors’ recommendations and follow the medical-marijuana law?

There’s one more concern: The oft-sued agency fears it could be liable if an offender on supervision were to hurt someone while high on DOC-approved pot.

Waivers are not needed for prescriptions for Marinol, a synthetic form of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat nausea and appetite loss.

A BALANCE

Blonien said the policy is the right balance between compassion and accountability, especially because most of the requests for waivers come from offenders with drug histories.

“It is a very difficult position the department is in,” he said. “The public expects us to help these folks return to the community, and to protect the public. It is just incongruent for us to allow some to use marijuana when it led to the criminality in the first place.”

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