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Originally published Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 5:40 PM

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Wash. Legislature passes marijuana dispensary bill

The Legislature passed a major overhaul of the state's medical marijuana law Thursday in spite of a veto threat by the governor, a measure that would for the first time protect some patients from being arrested and create a system for licensing storefront dispensaries and grow operations.

Associated Press

quotes Now that the bill has reached the governor, our only hope to secure real arrest... Read more
quotes The medical cannabis bill that is now on Governor Gregoire's desk is a ghost of its... Read more

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OLYMPIA, Wash. —

The Legislature passed a major overhaul of the state's medical marijuana law Thursday in spite of a veto threat by the governor, a measure that would for the first time protect some patients from being arrested and create a system for licensing storefront dispensaries and grow operations.

Supporters insisted that the changes are badly needed to remedy uneven treatment that dispensaries and patients have received from law enforcement and other officials around the state. But Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire reiterated her opposition to the licensing scheme, saying she won't sign it because state workers could be held liable for violating federal law, and said she was disappointed that lawmakers sent the bill to her desk.

"We need to create a system that works," she said in a statement Thursday. "I asked the Legislature to work with me on a bill that does not subject state workers to risk of criminal liability."

Gregoire said she would review the bill to see if she can sign off on any of it without jeopardizing state workers. She has the option of vetoing just parts of the bill.

"Patients need this; families of patients need this; communities need this; public safety mandates this," said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat who sponsored the measure. "Otherwise we will continue to see a proliferation of unregulated growers as well as dispensaries in communities across the state."

Medical marijuana is legal in 15 states, but only six of them have dispensary systems set up by law, and marijuana activists say that federal agents have not previously gone after state employees who implement dispensary systems.

Washington state voters in 1998 voted to let people with certain debilitating conditions present their marijuana authorizations as a defense if they're arrested and charged with marijuana possession. The law neither specifically authorizes dispensaries nor forbids them.

Since 1998, authorities in some counties have continued to arrest patients, while those in other jurisdictions, including Seattle, have largely been left alone. In King County, patient collectives provide marijuana to thousands of people, while Spokane County and others have moved to shut down dispensaries. Both law enforcement and patients have called for more clarity in the law.

Despite that backdrop, the bill approved by lawmakers Thursday was not uniformly welcomed by medical marijuana groups.

As originally drafted, the legislation would have prevented the arrest of authorized patients and would have barred police from conducting searches of any patients who signed an optional state medical marijuana registry. Amendments added by the House weakened those protections by deleting search protections and instead allowing arrest protection only for those patients who sign the registry.

That doesn't go far enough in establishing patient safeguards, said Ben Livington of the Cannabis Defense Coalition, a nonprofit marijuana activist group that isn't satisfied with the measure as passed.

"Our main goal is arrest protection for all authorized patients, so in that regard, today we failed," he said.

He said they hope to see a follow-up bill in the special legislative session to extend arrest protection for all patients. Livington also feels the bill does nothing to change law enforcement culture, which he says still refuses to accept that medical marijuana use is "the will of the people."

The House also added language to say that employers are not required to accommodate employees' medical marijuana use in their drug-free work environments, and directs the Department of Health to establish a cap on the number of dispensaries permitted in any one county: no more than one dispensary per 20,000 residents.

The processers, producers and dispensers of medical marijuana would face criminal penalties if they sold the drug to anyone other than a licensed entity. The measure also says dispensaries may not be located within 500 feet of a school, daycare center or another dispensary.

Washington Cannabis Association spokesman Philip Dawdy said he's relieved the measure passed and said he hopes she doesn't veto it. It isn't perfect, he said, but it provides a regulatory framework that can be improved in future years.

"If we need to come back and work out a different system in a year, if we need to create some kind of public-private partnership in order to buffer state employees, then bring it on," he said. "It's not going to be that hard."

Support for the measure crossed party lines. Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, said police haven't cracked down on widely proliferating dispensaries because it's hard to tell what's legal and what's not.

"We want to make it easier to enforce," she said.

Opponents included Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, who said the measure would bring the state too close to marijuana legalization.

"This bill has so many loopholes, you could drive a truck through it," said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. "And the people who are going to driving these trucks are the ones operating these dispensaries."

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