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A rude federal awakening for medical pot dreams

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
April 15, 2011 5:55 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The feds have come down – hard – on the Legislature’s plans to expand medical marijuana far beyond the voters’ original mandate. Marijuana enthusiasts have only themselves to blame.

Gov. Chris Gregoire did the state a favor Wednesday by trying to clarify how the U.S. Department of Justice might react to the free-wheeling dope industry many lawmakers having been pushing to legalize with a new bill.

The two U.S. attorneys who cover Washington quickly spelled out their likely response: fines, property forfeitures, lawsuits and possible criminal prosecutions. Individual state officials might be targeted if they licensed grow operations and dispensaries, as the measure proposes.

Later Thursday, Gregoire said she would veto the legislation as written.

Read the U.S. attorneys’ letter and you’ll see where they’re coming from. The Justice Department, they said, isn’t interested in pursuing “seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen in compliance with state law.”

But marijuana profiteers – be they enabling doctors, retailers, wholesalers, processors or growers – are a different story.

In Washington and elsewhere, they have defied both state and federal law to turn medical marijuana into a commercial industry replete with marijuana shops, festive farmers markets and clinics that do nothing but prescribe marijuana – often quite loosely. The City of Tacoma alone has recklessly licensed 35 dispensaries, with seven more on the way.

Thumb your nose at the feds often enough and openly enough, and sooner or later you wind up in their cross hairs. It was foolish to extrapolate the Justice Department’s sympathy for legitimate patients to a tolerance of any kind of trafficking that labeled itself “medical marijuana.”

For lawmakers, it’s back to the drawing board. Sick people who genuinely need marijuana should be able to get it, legally, without having to grow it themselves.

Shared gardens, nonprofit dispensaries and co-ops might not have triggered federal scrutiny if big money hadn’t been changing hands – and they would have reflected the spirit of the 1998 initiative that legalized medical marijuana under tight restrictions.

The state Senate would have addressed some of the federal concerns. Its version of the marijuana bill would have banned for-profit dispensaries and dope docs. It also wouldn’t have forced dispensaries on unwilling cities and counties.

The House bill leaned more toward the Hempfest vision of medical marijuana; it would have licensed profit-driven dispensaries, let medical enablers keep on enabling and forbidden local communities from saying no.

Both bills envisioned large-scale commercial pot farms, which were never going to happen.

Congress ought to amend the Controlled Substance Act to permit bona fide therapeutic use of the cannabinoids in marijuana, which can help patients with a narrow range of medical conditions. But the Justice Department was already permitting such use; it drew the line only after traffickers started operating as if they were immune from the law.
To the extent that “medical marijuana” reflects actual medical practices and controls, it’s not likely to run into trouble. But if the industry walks and talks like a grand drug-dealing scheme, it shouldn’t be surprised to find itself treated like one.

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