The state Legislature is pushing forward on a controversial bill that would change Washington's medical marijuana laws.
Senate Bill 5073, which would set up a voluntary patient registry and license medical marijuana dispensaries, passed the House Health Care and Wellness Committee on a 6-5, mostly partisan vote Wednesday. Some applauded it as a way to better oversee marijuana use in Washington, and others worried that it could lead to abuse of the system.
“Right now we have such ambiguity in our law regarding our protection for authorized medical marijuana patients, and I hate to see that,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington since voters approved Initiative 692 in 1998, but that law left some confusion around how people who qualify to use medical marijuana can get it.
Under the rule, patients are allowed to grow limited amounts of medical marijuana for themselves or designate a provider to grow it for them, but it doesn’t address the dispensaries that have sprouted up to sell marijuana.
Senate Bill 5073 would authorize and license dispensaries through the state Health Department.
John Schochet, a lawyer from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said that legal or not, dispensaries have become a fact of life in Washington because many people are unable to grow medical marijuana for themselves or find a personal provider.
“Given that we have a medical marijuana system in the state, dispensaries in some form are inevitable,” Schochet said.
“We want to approach the problem from the perspective of how can we do this in a way that is good for communities?”
So far, local governments around the state have taken different approaches toward dispensaries.
In King County, for instance, the county prosecutor has taken the position that dispensaries are illegal but has not taken any action against them. The City of Tacoma tried sending cease-and-desist orders to dispensaries there in October, but when that led to an uproar by medical marijuana advocates, the City Council backed off.
“The city has not said that we think dispensaries are the way to go, necessarily, but no one has suggested anything else,” said Randy Lewis, the city’s lobbyist. “We just want clarity. That’s the bottom line.”
If it passes, the bill will also set up a voluntary registry for patients in Washington to make it easier for law enforcement to tell whether someone in possession of marijuana was violating the law.
The House committee made some changes to the bill, which already passed the Senate in a 29-20 vote, mainly by cutting out amendments that were added during the Senate floor vote.
The committee eliminated a requirement that dispensaries be nonprofit, removed a provision that would have allowed local governments to prohibit dispensaries locally and required the Health Department to cap the number of dispensary licenses it issues in each county, based on the number of patients there.
The committee also added a provision to protect patients from being arrested for marijuana possession even if they do not sign up for the state registry and loosened some restrictions on health care workers who prescribe medical marijuana.
Rep. Bill Hinkle, a Cle Elum Republican on the Health Care and Wellness Committee, said he was disappointed at the changes that the bill went through because they removed some restrictions on dispensaries.
“It’s got holes you could drive a truck through,” said Hinkle of the bill, though he said he was not sure how specifically to improve the measure.
The proposal has also faced opposition from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the Washington State Pharmacy Association, and the Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.
To become law, the proposal must pass a House floor vote, be reconciled with the version that passed the Senate and go to the governor for a signature.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org