In the latest escalation of a medical marijuana controversy in Olympia, about two dozen people rallied on the Capitol steps Tuesday, calling on the governor to approve a law licensing dispensaries that sell the drug to pain patients.
Disagreement has been welling up over a bill to clarify Washington’s medical marijuana rules since Gov. Chris Gregoire threatened last week to veto the measure because it could expose state workers to federal prosecution, leaving activists, lawmakers and city officials frustrated.
Protesters Tuesday said vetoing Senate Bill 5073, which already made it through both houses of the Legislature, would show that the governor is disrespecting the voter initiative that approved medical marijuana in Washington in the first place and abandoning patients who rely on it.
“We’re in the early stages of making some noises to try to get the governor to change her position,” said Washington Cannabis Association spokesman Philip Dawdy, who attended the rally.
The bill would provide some arrest protection for medical marijuana patients in Washington and set up a process for licensing marijuana dispensaries. It's meant to address a gray area in Washington law, which allows pain patients to use medical marijuana, but is less clear on how they're permitted to get it.
Protester Laura Healy, a Shoreline resident and member of a medical marijuana patient support group called Green Hope Patient Network, said both those provisions were important.
“This bill is something that we need,” she said. “It gives people a safe place to get our medicine.”
The governor said her decision not to support the measure came in response to a letter she received Thursday from two U.S. attorneys saying the proposal went too far.
Though the federal Controlled Substances Act, or CSA, prohibits the use of marijuana in the United States, the Justice Department released a memo in 2009 saying it would not prosecute medical marijuana patients who were in compliance with state laws.
In their letter to Gregoire, though, U.S. attorneys Jenny Durkan and Michael Ormsby said the part of the bill that would authorize marijuana dispensaries could open the state up to federal prosecutions.
“We maintain the authority to enforce the CSA vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law,” they wrote.
Supporters of the bill have pointed out, however, that six other states and Washington D.C. license medical pot dispensaries, and, according to information from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Justice Department has not prosecuted anyone for violating federal marijuana laws there.
Randy Lewis, the Government Operations Manager for Tacoma, said he was disappointed the governor didn’t voice any concerns earlier in the process.
If the Legislature can’t pass something this session to regulate marijuana dispensaries in Washington, Lewis said he expected the Tacoma City Council to move forward with cease and desist orders it began sending out to local dispensaries in October, leaving a black market for the drug that’s unlikely to go away.
“We’ll just pretend it’s not happening,” said Lewis.