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Surprise: A responsible medical marijuana bill

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 9, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
March 9, 2011 4:52 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Sober minds in the state Senate have made crucial improvements to a medical marijuana bill that originally looked way too much like a party-hearty measure. But it still needs work in the House.

Here’s what sensible legislators have done to what we once called a Cheech and Chong bill:

• The original would have legalized commercial marijuana dispensaries. To keep sharks out of the business, the revised version requires that dispensaries be nonprofits.

• Marijuana advertising would be forbidden.

• Cities and counties could choose whether to allow dispensaries or not, much like casinos. The original permitted no local control.

• Employers could enforce company-wide anti-drug policies. The original would have forbidden them from refusing to employ marijuana users.

Most important, the new bill makes a serious effort to prevent hack doctors from certifying recreational users and abusers as qualified patients – a problem that has tainted medical marijuana in general and the sick people who have a genuine need for it.

It promises to shut down authorization mills – profiteering clinics set up chiefly to hand out medical marijuana documents to “patients” for hefty fees after minimal medical exams.

The final Senate version requires doctors and other marijuana-prescribing professionals to document treatment and maintain ongoing relationships with patients; they’d be forbidden from doing exams “solely or primarily for the purpose of authorizing the medical use of cannabis.”

They would also be forbidden from any financial ties with dispensers or growers – a conflict of interest that invites quackery and corruption.

As revised, the bill would be a big improvement on the Wild West medicine show that medical marijuana has become in Washington. But three problems remain.

The revised measure still forbids family courts from even considering medical marijuana use in custody disputes unless the user suffers “long term impairment” from the drug.

Actually, no kind of impairment – short term or long term, from any drug – should be automatically exempt from scrutiny when the care of children is concerned. Judges should not be prevented from deciding custody disputes on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the ages and vulnerability of the children affected.

The bill also continues to ignore the question of professional qualifications for dispensaries. Even ampicillin prescriptions must be screened by pharmacists in the world of legal drugs, but the Senate would require no qualifications whatsoever – not even a high school degree – to hand out marijuana.

Dispensaries need not employ fully licensed pharmacists, but the state should require – after a reasonable transition period – that someone at the counter have enough documented scientific competence to act as a check on abuse.

Finally, the bill still proposes to legalize commercial marijuana grow operations. The feds may not be amused. The U.S. Justice Department recently threatened criminal action against Oakland officials if they moved ahead with marijuana farms in that city.

Under President Obama, Justice officials have been outright enablers of dubious and illegal medical marijuana operations. But even they have their limits.

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