More MS news articles for March 2001

State lawmakers seek to clarify medical marijuana law

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

OLYMPIA -- Lawmakers are trying to clarify the state's medical marijuana law by defining exactly how much pot is in the "60-day supply" patients are allowed to keep.

Authorities have been grappling with that vague provision ever since Washington voters passed Initiative 692 in 1998.

Now a bill before the Legislature would direct the state Department of Health to nail down a definition for a 60-day supply of medical marijuana.

Senate Bill 5176 urges the state to follow federal guidelines, but even those are murky, said bill sponsor Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.

"There apparently are federal guidelines, but we can't find them written anywhere," Kohl-Welles said yesterday.

For now, bill backers point to a federally sanctioned study out of the University of Mississippi in which eight patients have received 300 marijuana cigarettes a month since the mid-1970s.

That's about a pound of pot every two months, said JoAnna McKee, cofounder of a Seattle-based underground marijuana clinic called the Green Cross Patient Co-op.

McKee -- a West Seattle resident who has used marijuana to ease pain from several spinal injuries -- testified yesterday at a House Health Care Committee hearing.

Seated in a wheelchair, McKee held up a tin can the size of a small cookie jar which she said a friend in the University of Mississippi study receives full of marijuana joints each month.

She and others urged committee members to pass SB 5176, saying it would clear up confusion in law enforcement and ease doctors' anxiety about how much marijuana they're allowed to advise patients to use.

"We all feel we can be accused or will have to defend ourselves against a standard that doesn't exist," said William Teskey of Seattle, who smokes pot to ease severe back pain.

ACLU spokesman Jerry Sheehan mentioned the arrest of a blind AIDS patient from Tacoma found with three marijuana plants as an example of how the current law's ambiguity can target the wrong people.

Marijuana is still illegal to buy and sell. It's listed in the same class of drugs as heroin and LSD. Possession of pot is allowed under I-692, but state law does not say how people can obtain it in the first place.

The Institute of Medicine, a federal advisory panel, asserts that marijuana can help fight pain and nausea and should be tested further in scientific trials, but the U.S. Justice Department has insisted there is no accepted use of the drug.

I-692, which passed with 59 percent of the vote, gives doctors the right to recommend -- but not prescribe -- marijuana for people suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and other conditions that cause "intractable pain."

Backers left the 60-day provision ambiguous on purpose, opting to wait until the law passed before sending it to the state Department of Health for final tinkering, Kohl-Welles said.

But initiative sponsors skipped over a technicality -- a regulation barring state agencies from setting up rules for enforcing laws unless those laws include specific instructions to do so.

SB 5176 would fix that.

The Senate passed SB 5176 by a 37-10 vote earlier this month. The bill now faces an evenly split House, which has until mid-April to approve it.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department is challenging medical-marijuana laws in Washington and eight other states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado.

A hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled next week, but medical marijuana advocates say the federal government can't strip states of their rights to enforce their own laws.

"There's really no way they can go before Congress and ask for a hundredfold budget increase to hire enough DEA agents to go to Washington state, so they can start kicking in doors of 80-year-old cancer patients," said Chuck Thomas, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

© 2001 The Associated Press.