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Legislature moves forward on medical marijuana bill

Post by Katie Schmidt on March 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
March 23, 2011 3:41 pm

Through complex amendments and Republican opposition, the state Legislature is pushing forward on a bill that would change Washington’s medical marijuana laws, a move supporters said could bring clarity to a confusing system.

Senate Bill 5073, which would set up a voluntary patient registry and license medical marijuana dispensaries passed the House Health Care and Wellness Committee in a 6-5, mostly-partisan vote Wednesday, with some applauding it as a way to better oversee marijuana-use in Washington and others worrying that it could lead to abuse of the system.

“Right now we have such ambiguity in our law regarding our protection for authorized medical marijuana patients, and I hate to see that,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington since voters approved Initiative 692 in 1998, but that law left some grey area around how people who qualify to use medical marijuana can get it.

Under the rule, patients are allowed to grow limited amounts of medical marijuana for themselves or designate a provider to grow it for them. But marijuana providers are only allowed to give the drug out to one patient at a time, and some have interpreted this to mean that dispensaries, or businesses that sell medical marijuana, are illegal.

Senate Bill 5073 would authorize dispensaries to operate in Washington, but they would have to get a license through the state Health Department.

The House committee made some changes to the bill, which already passed the Senate in a 29-20 vote, mainly by cutting out amendments that were added during the Senate floor vote.

The committee changes to the bill eliminated a requirement that dispensaries be non-profit, removed a provision that would have allowed local governments to prohibit dispensaries in their areas and required the Health Department to cap the number of dispensary licenses it issues in each county based on the number of patients there.

The committee also added a provision to protect patients from being arrested for marijuana possession even if they do not sign up for the state registry and loosened some restrictions on healthcare workers who prescribe medical marijuana.

Rep. Bill Hinkle, a Cle Elum Republican on the Health Care and Wellness Committee said he was disappointed at the changes that the bill went through because they removed some restrictions on dispensaries.

He said he doubted Republicans in the House would support the measure because Washington’s law allowing medical marijuana conflicts with federal rules and he thought these changes would encourage abuse.

Sen. Jerome Delvin, a co-sponsor of SB 5073 and one of eight Republicans who voted for it in the Senate, said he used to oppose medical marijuana bills when they came up in the Legislature, but he had talked with enough frustrated police officers and patients to decide it was time to support the bill.

“I’ve always voted no in the past on anything with medical marijuana because I disagreed with the initiative,” said Delvin, a Richland Republican. “But it’s withstood 12 years in the Legislature, so I guess maybe it’s time to get something working.”

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