ACLU, some patients at odds over WA medical marijuana measure
The Associated Press
The Seattle Times
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP)-- Some medical marijuana advocates and patients are protesting a measure they supported at the beginning of the legislative session, saying it has been watered down by the process and is now useless.
"There's nothing left in the bill worth keeping," said Steve Sarich, executive director of CannaCare, a medical marijuana advocacy group.
But the bill's primary sponsor and other supporters -- including the American Civil Liberties Union -- say political compromise is necessary to get the measure through this year and that it still does a lot to help patients who use marijuana to ease pain from cancer and other medical conditions.
The measure passed the state Senate earlier this month and was scheduled for a hearing in the House Health Care Committee on Monday afternoon.
After it was amended, Sarich said, he and other patients asked the ACLU to end its support of the bill. The organization refused, and a group of patients picketed its offices in Seattle on Friday.
"The ACLU is absolutely not going to back down," Sarich said. "The patients are really angry. We trusted them."
Alison Chinn Holcomb, director of the state ACLU's Marijuana Education Project, said the bill represents progress for medical marijuana patients, even if it doesn't go as far as the original measure.
"The ACLU ... has experienced and understands that allies from time to time are going to have different opinions about the best strategies to adopt for pursuing a common goal," Holcomb said. "I think that's where we are right now."
The main sticking point is a provision added to the bill that would require the state Department of Health to determine the quantity of marijuana that could reasonably be considered a 60-day supply.
Initiative 692 passed with 59 percent voter approval in 1998. It gives doctors the right to recommend -- but not prescribe -- marijuana for people suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and other conditions that cause "intractable pain."
But state law limits the amount of marijuana an individual can possess for medical use to a 60-day supply. People found with marijuana can still be arrested, but if they prove it's for medicinal purposes they can avoid being charged with a crime in the state system. That does not protect them from federal prosecution, however.
Sarich said doctors , not a state agency, should determine what constitutes a 60-day supply for individual patients.
"That is completely unacceptable," said Sarich, who said he takes medical marijuana for an incurable spinal disease. "These people aren't even meeting with me. They aren't my treating physician. How would they know how much medication I need?"
But Holcomb said doctors do not want to determine the amount of a 60-day supply, because that comes close to prescribing marijuana. If doctors are found to be prescribing the drug, they can lose their ability to prescribe other medications -- which is a federal license.
She added that the measure does not ask the Health Department to set a maximum amount of marijuana a person can have. It only asks the department to set an amount that would be presumed to be a 60-day supply.
Patients who had more than that amount and were arrested would still have a chance to show that their needs were more than the amount set by the department.
The ACLU still supports the bill because the creation of the 60-day supply amount would make it easier for police officers to determine quickly whether a patient is in compliance with the law or not.
That would mean fewer arrests and prosecutions of patients, Holcomb said.
The measure also would require the Health Department to come up with recommendations on how the state can provide safe access to marijuana for patients and present them to the Legislature in July 2008.
"This is going to keep the ball moving down the field," Holcomb said.
Sarich said patients were also upset that a provision was taken out of the bill that would have allowed them to set up cooperative growing operations, where several could grow marijuana in the same location.
"Right now, I'm not allowed to grow for another patient," Sarich said. "As a result, the vast majority of medical marijuana patients -- nine years after the passage of the initiative -- are still having to get their medication from drug dealers. That's just not right."
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, the bill's sponsor, said Friday there were too many concerns about cooperative growing, including how big growing fields should be and how many patients they would serve.
Law enforcement wanted the "ambiguity and vagueness" of the 60-day supply language that is currently in the law clarified, and that is why the Department of Health provision was included, she said.
"I would have liked to have my original bill but we can't get there," Kohl-Wells said, noting that even with a strong Democratic advantage in both the House and Senate this year there still wasn't support.
"What they may not fully understand is our political realities," she said.
And Kohl-Wells insisted that not all patients are against the amended measure.
JoAnna McKee, a medical marijuana patient who was active in working to pass the initiative in 1998, said Friday she supported the new bill.
"The new bill is a big change from what we had expected. It's been very hard for some people to accept," she said. But she added that it "gives us the opportunity to work with the state to solve and answer the questions about supply."