By Phillip Smith
A bill that would create a system of state-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries and patient registries faces an uncertain future after Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) said she would not sign legislation that could get state employees in trouble with the feds.
The bombshell statement came after she solicited the input of the state's two US Attorneys, Mike Orsmby in the Western District in Spokane and Jenny Durkan in the Eastern District in Seattle. The prosecutorial pair responded to Gregoire's inquiry with an April 14 letter warning of a possible federal response if the legislation passes.
"Growing, distributing and possessing marijuana in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities," Ormsby and Durkan wrote. "State employees who conducted activities mandated by the Washington legislative proposals would not be immune from liability under the Controlled Substance Act."
"I will not sign anything subjecting state employees to prosecution," Gregoire said last week after receiving the letter.
The bill, Senate Bill 5073, has passed both houses, but needs to go before a conference committee to hammer out differences. Gregoire has urged legislators to send her a bill she can sign. They have until the end of the week to do so before the legislative session ends.
Some dispensary supporters are urging legislators to stand up to Gov. Gregoire, but others said the bill, as amended in the House, removed protections for patients and must be fixed in concurrence before going to the governor. The main House amendment removed protection from arrest from patients unless they signed onto the state's patient registry. And some are so unhappy with the bill, they would rather see it die.
The ACLU of Washington, which supports the bill, sent a letter to legislators over the weekend urging them to stand firm and saying the concerns expressed by Gregoire were overblown. The federal government has never prosecuted a state employee implementing a dispensary program, the letter pointed out, citing the example of New Mexico, where the state Department of Health administers the program.
The US Attorneys' letter displays the federal government's insistence on being part of the problem instead of part of the solution, said the letter, written by ACLU attorney Shankar Narayan. "The feds have promised no action to control the chaos of semi-legal businesses, yet balk at a law that regulates them sensibly," Narayan wrote. "The legislature and our governor must step in where the feds will not, so that patients can have access to medicine and communities are safe."
On Tuesday, the Seattle mayor, city council, and city attorney all signed a letter to the Senate calling the federal threats to state employees "specious" and urging that body to accept the House amendments and send a strong bill to Gov. Gregoire.
"The question we face is not whether or not we are going to have medical marijuana use in Washington State," the Seattle officials wrote. "The voters already decided that question more than a decade ago. The question we face is whether or not we will have a thoughtful and rational regulatory framework for the production, processing, and distribution of medical marijuana. In its current form SB 5073 provides much needed clarity to this important issue and we urge you to adopt it and send it to the governor."
Also on Tuesday, several dozen demonstrators showed up at the state capitol in Olympia calling on the governor to sign the dispensary bill. The protestors said Gregoire was abandoning patients and snubbing the will of the voters.
"We're in the early stages of making some noises to try to get the governor to change her position," said Philip Dawdy, a spokesman for the newly formed Washington Cannabis Association, which came together to support the bill.
Another activist group, the Cannabis Defense Coalition, however, is harshly critical of the bill as amended by the House, saying the House action had "torpedoed" the bill. The bill as amended by the House includes language "that removes arrest and search protection for authorized patients who choose not to notify the state of their medical treatment decisions and disqualifies parolees and people on probation from any medicinal use of cannabis," the group complained.
And pot provocateur and CannaCare dispensary operator Steve Sarich was even more harsh, telling the Seattle Weeklythat the bill as amended by the House "eviscerated" patients' rights. Sarich led a small group of demonstrators to the ACLU of Washington offices last week to protest its support of the bill.
But now, it's up to the legislative conferees and the governor. Will the unpopular House amendment stand? Will the legislature stand up to the governor? Will the governor stand up to the feds? We will have the answers in a matter of days.