WA state’s medical marijuana rules soon to become less ambiguous

July 01, 2007

Curt Woodward, Associated Press

This fall, sober public servants will convene a series of meetings across Washington state to answer a pressing question: Just how much marijuana constitutes a two-month supply?

That may seem like an odd question for strait-laced government types to tackle. But it’s a serious attempt to shore up the state’s medical marijuana law, which has been around for nearly a decade without defining the “60-day supply” patients are allowed to have on hand.

Now, after years of unsuccessful attempts to amend the law, the state Health Department has been ordered to spell out how much marijuana makes up that theoretical two-month cache.

Prosecutors and police seem generally happy with the change, saying it should help rank-and-file officers determine whom to arrest and whom to leave alone.

The American Civil Liberties Union and supportive state lawmakers think it could be the beginning of even broader reforms by the state’s Democrat-controlled Legislature.

But some patients wish the state simply wouldn’t bother, spooked that the government will make the limits too restrictive and spark far more arrests for people in frail health.

If the law is going to be changed, dissenters would rather see stronger protection from arrest or an allowance for group growing operations. Defining the 60-day supply, they say, is a do-nothing compromise aimed mostly at pleasing law enforcement.

“Once again, politics have trumped patients’ rights. Once again, politics have trumped science,” said Dale Rogers, head of Seattle’s Compassion in Action Patient Network, which distributes medical marijuana.

Washington’s medical marijuana law was approved by nearly 60 percent of voters in 1998, following closely behind California in the first wave of such measures around the country.

Under Washington’s law, doctors are allowed to recommend marijuana for people suffering from “intractable pain” and several serious diseases, including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis.

Marijuana patients still can be arrested and prosecuted, but they might avoid conviction by proving a legitimate medical need.

But unlike the 11 other laws that protect medical marijuana users from a state criminal conviction, Washington has never set a specific limit for the amount of pot each patient was allowed to have.

In neighboring Oregon, for example, patients are allowed up to 24 ounces of pot and two dozen plants at different stages of growth.

In some cases, the gray area has served as a legal shield, allowing each patient and their doctor to argue in court how much marijuana they need, said Douglas Hiatt, a defense lawyer who specializes in medical marijuana cases.

Opponents fear the limit will end up being artificially low.

Unlike standardized medicines, marijuana varies in potency. Add that to the variety of serious conditions it can be recommended to treat, and even one patient’s use can change quite a bit.

Ric Smith, a longtime medical marijuana user from Seattle, typically lights up before mealtimes to treat the nausea that comes with his HIV medication.

In any given week, depending on how he’s feeling and the potency of the pot, Smith can blaze through anywhere from 7 grams to about an ounce. But without it, even the smallest disturbance can be too much to handle.

“When you’re at the top of the roller coaster and you just start over the other edge? It’s that feeling, 24 hours a day,” Smith said. “A pin drop, a bird flying by, a butterfly landing on your nose – anything will make you throw up.”

As they prepare for this fall’s public lobbying with health regulators, Hiatt and others say they’ve already got their ammunition: a marijuana dosing study led by a University of Washington rehabilitation-medicine specialist, Dr. Gregory Carter.

Following the study’s guidelines, Hiatt said, patients should be allowed anywhere from a half-pound to 21/2 pounds of marijuana in two months.

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