Pot advocates criticize two county officials

September 19, 2007

Mark Morey, Yakima Herald (WA)

SELAH -- Medical marijuana advocates are charging that Yakima County has disregarded the state's law regarding limited use of the drug by approved patients.

But Sheriff Ken Irwin and chief prosecutor Ron Zirkle disagreed, saying that they have tried to appropriately handle the few cases that have come up since voters approved the related initiative in 1998.

CannaCare, a medical marijuana advocacy group active in Washington and Nevada, issued a news release Wednesday stating the group's concerns about the county's approach. The news release also stated that CannaCare would ask the state attorney general's office to investigate.

CannaCare representative Steve Sarich spoke at a meeting Wednesday evening in Selah where the state Department of Health was gathering comments on how the agency should define a 60-day supply of medical marijuana for patients.

The group accuses Zirkle and Irwin of not recognizing the law, based on a letter from a member of the prosecutor's staff.

Zirkle, who attended Wednesday's session but did not speak, described the letter as unclear and said he would look into it. He said he was not aware before Wednesday of the correspondence with a medical marijuana advocate from Western Washington.

Irwin said the law needs to be fixed to define a proper supply.

A recent revision to the state statute directs police to let patients retain their marijuana if they can prove they have proper documentation.

Zirkle and Irwin said medical marijuana cases are relatively rare in Yakima County, although they could not provide an exact count.

Zirkle said he personally believes that the push for medical marijuana is part of an effort to legalize its use altogether.

CannaCare representative Steve Sarich said widespread legalization is not his focus.

"That may be a good issue, but it's not my issue," Sarich said.

Sarich said he thinks that law enforcement officials want the Department of Health rule as another method by which they can pursue prosecution of patients. Sarich said his home in Western Washington was raided, although no charges have been filed.

The appropriate amount of medical marijuana means different things for different patients, speakers told department representatives during the comment period.

The meeting at the Selah Civic Center was the last of four held around the state by the department as officials respond to the Legislature's request to set how much marijuana should be allowed for patients who possess a qualifying recommendation from a doctor under state law. That administrative rule is due by July.

Some speakers suggested that nine plants isn't enough, while another said that a 100-plant standard may reduce conflicting enforcement efforts.

Voters approved the state's medical marijuana law in 1998. It allows approved patients of certain medical conditions -- cancer, AIDS and intractable pain, among others -- to hold a 60-day supply of the drug. But the proper amount has never been defined, leaving providers and police in a quandary.

The federal government, which has long maintained that marijuana offers no medical benefit, still considers the drug illegal, regardless of laws in Washington and other states.

The Department of Health also wants to clarify the best method for supplying the drug to patients.

Speakers at Wednesday's meetings -- some of whom expressed concern about being targeted by police because they spoke out -- said the lack of a secure supply forces them to get marijuana from illegal dealers, especially if they do not have the resources or knowledge to grow their own.

The Department of Health tentatively expects to end its public comment period by December.

* Mark Morey can be reached at 577-7671 or mmorey@yakimaherald.com.

Medical marijuana comments

Comments on a medical marijuana rule proposal may be submitted to the Department of Health via the following methods:

* Sending an e-mail to medicalmarijuana@doh.wa.gov.

* Posting a message at www.doh.wa.gov/medicalmarijuana.

* Mailing a letter to Box 47866, Olympia, WA 98504-7866, or faxing it to 360-236-4768.

More background information is available at the Web site listed above.

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