A n Associated Press story recently reported how the federal government would respond if Washington expands medical marijuana dispensaries: "The U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington has warned landlords they could face forfeiture of their properties if they rent to medical marijuana shops." The story noted that federal law prohibits marijuana use, quoting U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby as saying, "We intend to use the full extent of our legal remedies to enforce the law."
Following voter approval of Initiative 692 (Medical Use of Marijuana Act) in 1998, state law has allowed qualified patients with debilitating medical conditions to grow medical marijuana for themselves or designate a provider to grow it on their behalf. However, Senate Bill 5073 would set up a formal regulatory structure that effectively expands the ability to grow and sell medical marijuana in Washington state.
Supporters have ignored Ormsby's warning so far, pushing successfully for legislative passage that this bill soon may appear on the governor's desk. This is very troubling because it would put Washington on a slippery slope of legal and social problems. One only needs to look at states with similar laws to understand why expansion of dispensaries and growing operations in Washington is a bad idea. California's liberal medical marijuana laws have made it easy for teenagers to obtain pot. "It's become a right of passage in California that when you turn 18, you go get medical marijuana cards," said one city manager. Teenagers who turn 18 are getting prescriptions for the drug and then sharing it with friends and younger teens. Said one teenager of her friends, "It was a game to them. Some said they had headaches, some said they had anxiety. They knew what to say to get it." The pressure is put on good doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to their patients.
In Michigan, reports have documented unscrupulous physicians willing to certify anyone. That's one of the flaws in the Washington legislation. Senate Bill 5073 would establish protection from criminal liability and arrest for health care providers and designated providers of the drug.
In Montana, Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul noted, "Now that medical marijuana has taken off, we're seeing more marijuana in the schools and hands of students. Look at the message we're sending young people: 'It's not dangerous. It's benign.'"
In fact, it's not benign. Aside from memory and learning problems, distorted perception, loss of motor coordination, and anxiety, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says marijuana smoke contains cancer-causing compounds, sometimes in higher concentrations than tobacco. Even more disturbing, another national study discovered that for the first time since 1981 there is a marked rise in teenage marijuana use.
Except for keeping dispensaries at least 500 feet from a school, the proposed Washington law has few safeguards to keep marijuana from young people. The measure would allow patient groups to grow up to 99 plants in community marijuana gardens. Those gardens could be located anywhere, even next to a school.
Then there's the issue of marijuana grow operations in the home. The bill would allow patients to grow 15 plants and possess 24 ounces of usable marijuana. In Franklin County, officers were called to an altercation at a home in which two brothers were fighting because one of the boys had smoked the marijuana grown for medical purposes by his parents.
While I understand the need for medical marijuana for legitimate patients, I am very concerned that Senate Bill 5073 would widely expand growing, cultivation and access to marijuana without controlling who has access to the drug. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs clearly expressed this concern, stating: "Senate Bill 5073 places in law a commercial approach to marijuana cultivation, processing and dispensing that better fits the legalization of marijuana than the more medicinal use. It will make enforcement against recreational marijuana growing and use difficult."
The bill's sponsor said, "it is important we put our opinions on legalization aside and fix the state's medical marijuana law." This incremental approach toward legalization, however, is a legitimate concern and cannot be ignored when this legislation would foster mainstream marijuana growing and dispensing operations in our communities, neighborhoods and on street corners.
Finally, there's a cost factor -- more than $1 million in start-up and legal fees for the state, not to mention ongoing expenses of nearly 90 new state employee positions to regulate dispensaries. How can this be justified when the Legislature has a multibillion budget deficit?
If we are to address the problems of our state's medical marijuana law, we must do it in a way that ensures only patients with terminal or debilitating conditions have access - and no one else. We must do it in a way that doesn't run afoul of federal law, doesn't increase access to children or non-patients, doesn't incrementally legalize recreational marijuana, and doesn't make growing cannabis so profitable that it surpasses apples and wheat as the state's primary cash crop. Senate Bill 5073 completely fails to provide these safeguards. Instead, it's smoke and mirrors legislation that Washington cannot afford to inhale.
Editor's note: Rep. Terry Nealey represents the 16th Legislative District and serves on the House Judiciary Committee. He is a former prosecuting attorney