More MS news articles for May 2001

Local prosecutors say medical-marijuana arrests aren't high priority

Local News : Tuesday, May 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company
By Carol M. Ostrom
Seattle Times staff reporter

Federal and county prosecutors in Seattle say they're unlikely to begin targeting medical-marijuana patients or their suppliers despite yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that marijuana has no federally recognized "medical benefits" that protect users from felony drug charges.

"I'd be surprised if the DEA or local police presented a case to us involving these relatively small amounts," said Jerry Diskin, interim U.S. Attorney for the Western Washington district. "We'd have to give it real serious thought if we wanted to devote our manpower to that rather than the hundreds of pounds coming across the border from British Columbia."

Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, echoed the sentiment.

"First of all, this is not a high priority for law enforcement, to go out and arrest people who are gravely ill," he said. "No prosecutor wants to have a terminally ill patient at the defense table on a marijuana case."

In an 8-0 decision yesterday, the court ruled that a federal law classifying the drug as illegal has no exception for ill patients. The case originated in California in 1998, when the federal government attempted to stop the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and five other marijuana clubs from providing the drug to patients.

The court's ruling appears to put cooperatives and clubs supplying marijuana at increased risk of prosecution for distributing the drug, which is classified by the federal government as a "Schedule 1" drug - dangerous and with no possible medicinal use.

Satterberg said his office and the state Attorney General's Office would study the opinion's effect on Washington state's medical-marijuana law. Created by a citizen initiative in 1998, it allows seriously ill patients with specific diseases or symptoms, or their designated caregivers, to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana with a doctor's approval.

Since the initiative's passage, local law-enforcement officials and advocates have wrestled with the conflict it created with federal law.

Organizations such as Green Cross Patient Co-op and Lifevine Clinical Resources, both Seattle-area groups that help patients obtain marijuana, have never been protected by Washington's law, said Rob Killian, a Seattle family practitioner who sponsored the law.

And Satterberg, of the prosecutor's office, agrees: "They operate outside the law and they know it," But, he added, "they're in no more danger today than they were yesterday. This is not a priority for law enforcement."

Still, medical-marijuana supporters, both patients and suppliers, were disappointed, frightened and angered by the ruling.

"I would like the government to wake up and realize it's not a group of `stoners,' " said Krista Wilden, 28, who uses marijuana to help control pain from a back injury and to relieve nausea and vomiting from a gastrointestinal disorder.

"Some of us are living with debilitating conditions that keep us from living a regular life. Medical marijuana works better than some of the medications the doctors prescribe that were actually making me sicker, putting me in the hospital," she said.

Wilden said her gastrointestinal problems make her so sick she'll vomit until she's dehydrated, a cycle that has sent her to emergency rooms four or five times in the past 1½ years, she said. Instead of taking pills, waiting for an effect - and usually vomiting them before they start to work - she said she gets relief within seconds from a puff of marijuana.

"I don't know what it is," she said, "but it works."

Linda Day, 55, who has been confined to a wheelchair for the past year with multiple sclerosis, says it frightens her that the Supreme Court appears to care nothing that the voters of this state made a decision that patients could have marijuana.

She can't grow her own without help, she says, and can't drive to pick up marijuana from someone else. Last year, she spent two months in bed, and she still suffers from severe muscle cramping. "Marijuana is really helpful, both for my attitude and for the muscle cramping," she says. "I can laugh about my disability when I smoke it."

At Green Cross, Joanna McKee says her program helps over 1,500 patients around the state, putting patients who can grow and patients who can't in touch with one another. McKee said she had no intention of shutting down operations, which she characterized as much different from the California buyers' clubs.

Because her organization is a co-op, "our medicine is all owned by the patients," she said. "For patients who can't grow for themselves, patients who can are sharing it with them. We're not distributing, we're sharing."

McKee noted that the government continues to supply a handful of patients with marijuana under a "compassionate use" program.

"Since the federal government distributes, they can't say nobody can distribute it," McKee snapped. "If there's no medical exception, then the federal government has to go to jail, too. I guess if we go to jail, the feds are going to be in jail with us."

Carol M. Ostrom can be reached at 206-464-2249 or

Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company