Gregoire vetoes bill but vows to push feds on medical marijuana

April 28, 2011

Jonathan Martin, Seattle Times

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Friday proposed to lead the most high-level national effort to date to reclassify marijuana as a prescribable drug, even as she gutted a landmark state medical-marijuana bill.

Gregoire's partial veto, which was expected, leaves the state's cities, police and medical-marijuana patients struggling with the same problems that prompted the failed bill.

The governor took a combative posture in vetoing most of the bill, which would have licensed and regulated medical-marijuana dispensaries and grow operations, and given patients broader arrest protection.

Recent letters from U.S. Attorneys around the country, including Washington's two federal prosecutors, threatening more aggressive action against medical-marijuana programs and state workers enforcing them show a "changed landscape," she said.

"I cannot disregard federal law on the chance that state employees will not be prosecuted," said Gregoire. "What would I say to them if they are?"

But Gregoire, attempting to show she is an advocate for medical marijuana, said she would use her position as chair of the National Governor's Association to lead an effort to change marijuana federal classification from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug.

As a Schedule I drug, along with such drugs as PCP, marijuana has no medical value and cannot be prescribed, grown or possessed, according the Justice Department.

Gregoire said she would ask the governors of the 14 other states that authorize medical marijuana to petition the Justice Department and federal regulators to reclassify the drug.

Reclassification has been a goal of marijuana advocates since the 1970s, but repeated efforts have gone nowhere. The American Medical Association in 2009 reversed its long-standing opposition to marijuana reclassification.

Gregoire's proposal to have governors lead on the issue "would be unprecedented," said Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a California-based advocacy group.

Gregoire's veto, however, split key constituencies. The state workers' union, citing the letter from U.S. Attorneys Jenny Durkan, of Seattle, and Mike Ormsby, of Spokane, urged her to veto the bill.

But the veto disappointed key lawmakers, marijuana advocates and municipal officials. In Seattle, Mayor Mike McGinn and other city officials had urged Gregoire to pass the bill.

Gregoire's veto of a licensing regime for dispensaries was particularly frustrating to many advocates.

Holmes called the threat to prosecute state employees a "red herring," and "many sick patients will be forced to keep buying their medical cannabis from drug dealers."

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who'd spent nearly two years researching the bill, said the threat to prosecute state employees was low, but the cost to patients of having an unregulated marijuana distribution system was high.

"I'm terribly disappointed," she said. But it was possible, she said, that a new bill could be heard in the special session.

City officials had asked the Legislature to clarify whether dispensaries, which had proliferated across the state in the last year, were legal.

"Cities are unfortunately still in the same place they were before this, with conflicting information and a lack of clarity," said Candice Bock, a legislative analyst for Association of Washington Cities.

After the veto, the remaining bill provides new protections for medical-marijuana patients in child-custody disputes and for organ transplants.

But it also tightens restrictions on how medical professionals can authorize marijuana for patients, and limits medical-marijuana gardens to 45 plants.

That limit appears to replace more vague language under which patients had banded together into cooperative organizations. Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle attorney and marijuana advocate, said the veto eviscerates the legal framework that allowed those cooperatives — some as large as 3,000 patients — to exist.

"This is the worst setback for Washington medical-marijuana patients I've seen," said Hiatt.

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