This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Medical marijuana advocates made a deal with the voters in 1998 with Initiative 692: no sales, no shops, no dispensaries, no co-ops, nothing that would even vaguely resemble a legalized dope industry.
The year before, Washingtonians had rejected a loophole-riddled initiative that would have abetted the loosey-goosey quasi-commercialization already seen in California. I-692 included a crucial safeguard: authorized patients could use marijuana, but they had to grow their own supply or have it provided by a caregiver. No money was to change hands.
One patient per caregiver: The law explicitly says the caregiver must “possess no more marijuana than is necessary for the patient’s personal medical use.” And he or she must “be the primary caregiver to only one patient at one time.” That language would not be in there had the law envisioned shops with scores or hundreds of paying customers.
But dispensaries selling to multiple, paying customers is exactly what Washington has been seeing in recent months – in Tacoma, Spokane and elsewhere. Their operators appear to be hoping that police, prosecutors and courts will adopt a de facto tolerance policy toward “exchanges” that bill themselves as medical providers.
Three of these dispensaries have opened in Tacoma. Another, the “Green Buddha Patient Network,” operates out of Seattle and reportedly sells to more than 1,000 users statewide. Because the state has expansive guidelines on how much marijuana an individual patient can possess, growers often have surpluses. Those surpluses are getting marketed through the exchanges, all under the benign auspices of medicine.
It would be one thing if there were some medical rigor in the way marijuana were being administered to patients. In fact, some of the ailments for which marijuana is now approved under state guidelines – such as “intractable pain” – allow for very broad interpretations.
Physicians in general don’t appear eager to recommend that their patients smoke anything, so a relative handful of doctors seems to be writing marijuana authorizations for large numbers of patients they can’t know very well. Now the 2010 Legislature is moving to allow physician assistants and nurse-practitioners to authorize marijuana use, which appears to reflect the difficulty some would-be users have had getting permission from an actual physician.
Easy marijuana from wink-and-a-nod shops wasn’t what the voters were sold in 1998. Maybe the voters have changed their minds and want a wide open, California-style marijuana market.
The way to test that is to address the question forthrightly by putting another initiative on the ballot. But until the voters or lawmakers choose to go down that path, it’s up to prosecutors and police to make sure Initiative 692 isn’t covertly turned into a grand bait and switch, with the joke on Washington’s electorate.