Politics & Government

Gregoire vetoes most of pot bill

A medical marijuana patient exchanges a plant for a donation at the Conquering Lion in Tacoma in 2010.
A medical marijuana patient exchanges a plant for a donation at the Conquering Lion in Tacoma in 2010. The Olympian

Gregoire vetoes most of pot bill Gov. Chris Gregoire on Friday officially rejected the Legislature's proposal to license medical-marijuana dispensaries, arguing that assigning state employees that kind of regulation would open the workers up to federal prosecution.

Few parts of the measure survived her veto pen. One major casualty: proposed arrest protections for patients who join a state registry, something Gregoire and even law enforcement groups support. The governor said the parts of the bill she liked were too intertwined with the parts that worried her.

“I will not subject my state employees to federal prosecution, period,” she said.

Gregoire heeded advice from the largest state-employee union and from U.S. Attorneys Jenny Durkan and Michael Ormsby, who warned that the federal government could go after state employees under the bill. Civil liberties advocates called for Gregoire to ignore what they said were empty threats.

Such crackdowns haven’t happened in other states with liberal marijuana laws, advocates said. But Gregoire said the statements by federal prosecutors in Washington and other states show the winds are changing. The veto came a day after federal raids on dispensaries in Spokane.

Voters in 1998 approved marijuana for medicinal purposes, but they didn’t say explicitly that dispensaries are legal or illegal. Local governments have taken different approaches.

Tacoma had left them alone until recent months, when the city ordered dispensaries to close – but put appeals on hold until the Legislature could clarify the law.

That clarification looks like it’s not coming unless lawmakers revive the issue in their ongoing 30-day special session. Seattle Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the main proponent of the changes, said she’s optimistic that can happen even though she acknowledged time constraints would make it difficult.

It was “a little too early” Friday for Tacoma officials to know what happens next following the partial veto, city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said.

The city had been scheduled to hold an informational meeting by phone next week for the dispensaries’ attorneys, McNair-Huff said. He said at least 42 dispensaries have received letters.

One of them, Green Health, has operated since June at Fourth and Tacoma avenues.

“If the city decides to take action against us,” manager Jordan Baker said, “they’ll have to deal with some pretty dramatic court battles, and they’ll have to face a lot of patients that have no desire to be threatened by going back onto the black market for their medicine.”

Ezra Eickmeyer, lobbyist for the Washington Canna-bis Association, said the industry group and its members have been preparing for several years of city-by-city “political trench warfare” in the event Olympia failed to act.

Gregoire took care to say that her veto “takes away absolutely nothing from what that voter-passed initiative did.”

But at least one part of Senate Bill 5073 that survived to make it into law could undercut dispensaries’ legal position.

The businesses have argued the voter initiative effectively authorizes them by creating a category of “designated providers” to provide marijuana to patients who can’t grow their own. It limits providers to handing out marijuana to “only one patient at any one time,” but dispensaries argue they can take a new patient as soon as the previous one is out the door.

The new law appears to require a 15-day period between serving patients.

To avoid losing protections, the industry wanted all or nothing. Gregoire gave them neither.

“That was our greatest fear,” Eickmeyer said after the governor’s veto, “and she just did it.”

Among the other parts that survived to become law is authorization for up to 10 patients to pool together to grow a collective marijuana gardens containing up to 45 plants that yield up to 72 ounces of pot.

Gregoire threw advocates a bone with a promise to work with other states to persuade the federal government to downgrade marijuana to a legal category that would allow it to be prescribed by doctors and obtained at pharmacies.