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Tacoma: The latest enabler of a marijuana industry

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 30, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
October 29, 2010 5:37 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The Tacoma City Council – perhaps confusing Tacoma with Seattle – has taken the side of a fast-emerging marijuana industry that’s been shopping for compliant local governments.

The council has countermanded the city administration’s attempt to close down eight medical marijuana dispensaries (up from zero not too long ago) now operating in the city. The idea is to wait until the 2011 Legislature legalizes them. But it’s highly unlikely that next year’s more conservative House and Senate will do what heavily Democratic legislatures have already refused to do. What then – permanent toleration?

The council might want to listen more to the citizens complaining about these operations and less to the people with a vested interest – often a big financial interest – in seeing them proliferate. At the very least, it should show a little more interest in the rule of law.

Some members of the council appear to have bought claims that Initiative 692, which legalized medical marijuana, is vague or ambiguous about dispensaries. Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist isn’t vague on the issue: “Nobody among the elected prosecutors I talk to reads the law to allow for dispensaries.”

Lindquist says they’re illegal. The state attorney general’s office says they’re illegal. The state Department of Health says they’re illegal. The Tacoma City Council knows something they don’t know?

The problem isn’t the dispensaries per se; it’s the remarkably lax “medical” system of which they are the nexus. I-692 directed state officials to specify medical disorders that cannabinoids might legitimately help treat. These now include AIDS, epilepsy, severe nausea, hepatitis C and some other clearly identifiable illnesses. They also include “intractable pain … unrelieved by standard medical treatments and medications” – a very elastic term that invites exploitation from people who simply want a legal defense for smoking dope.

Guidelines on paper are nice, but there is virtually no enforcement of them in this state. Marijuana is the only controlled substance that Washington doctors can recommend with no oversight. No agency tracks their written recommendations of the drug.

The state Medical Quality Assurance Commission – which must wait for complaints before acting – regularly sanctions physicians for over-prescribing oxycontin, hydrocodone and other potentially dangerous drugs. In the 12 years I-692 has been on the books, the commission has never charged a doctor over medical marijuana. The complaints do come in; one has come from a school nurse who reported that a 14-year-old boy had been given a recommendation to use the drug.

According to the commission’s staff, the lack of a paper trail is part of the problem. The state requires no records of marijuana authorizations – unlike prescriptions, which can be tracked and audited. And medical marijuana doctors often work out of fly-by-night clinics housed in temporary space that can be quite relaxed about maintaining the medical documents needed to substantiate complaints. It’s a Wild West regime that makes it next to impossible to distinguish ethical physicians and legitimate patients – of which there are no doubt many – from greedy quacks and drug-seekers.

The dispensaries bill themselves as nonprofits, but the ad hoc clinics are anything but. Their operators procure the patients and hire the doctors. They exist solely to hand out marijuana authorizations, and they appear to do that quite efficiently. The charge for a consultation may run as high as $200, and marijuana seekers may be “examined” and given their authorizations in a few minutes.

The arrangement is a gold mine, both for clinics and the relative handful of doctors willing to participate. The financial incentive to authorize marijuana in dubious cases is huge, the risk minimal. The profits depend on the mass production of “patients,” which requires a mass supply of marijuana – which is where the dispensaries come in.

Little wonder that this industry’s entrepreneurs are probing for sympathetic local officials across the state.

The state professional bodies that provide what passes for regulation in Washington have no authority to initiate criminal charges. That would have to come from law enforcement in local jurisdictions, a few of which seem happy to keep the party going. Tacoma now appears to be adopting Seattle’s look-the-other-way policy.

This isn’t what Washingtonians were sold when they approved I-692. The very sponsors of the initiative said their intent was to allow “a family member or close friend” – not a quasi-commercial drug-trafficking network – supply marijuana to an ill patient.

Let’s be real: Much of the steam behind this expansion of legal marijuana comes from people who simply want marijuana legalized for recreational use.

There are arguments for legalization, but the honest way to pursue it is openly, by initiative or through legislative action, rather than to sneak it in the back door. The Tacoma City Council and other local officials certainly shouldn’t be flinging that back door wide open.

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