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Originally published Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 5:31 PM

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WA medical marijuana dispensaries left vulnerable

A yearlong attempt to clarify Washington's medical marijuana laws collapsed Tuesday, leaving state dispensaries without legal recognition and more vulnerable to prosecution.

Associated Press

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OLYMPIA, Wash. —

A yearlong attempt to clarify Washington's medical marijuana laws collapsed Tuesday, leaving state dispensaries without legal recognition and more vulnerable to prosecution.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, had pursued a series of proposals to regulate the dispensaries, managing to usher one plan all the way to the governor's desk. But Gov. Chris Gregoire struck down key parts of it with a veto last month, and a scramble to pass two other plans before the end of the legislative session failed to get enough support in committee.

"By far, this represents the greatest disappointment of my legislative career," Kohl-Welles said.

Medical marijuana dispensaries have proliferated across Washington in the past year, advertising heavily in weekly newspapers and online. Supporters argued that a requirement in state law calling for providers to serve only one patient at a time could be interpreted to mean that they could serve patients back-to-back, and that retail-like access points are needed to prevent a black market.

Gregoire's veto, however, left in a section that requires a provider to wait 15 days between patients - a provision that made such sales untenable. She also left in strict limits on the size of collective gardens - no more than 10 patients or 45 plants.

"The legality of dispensaries is even more questionable than it previously was," said Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU of Washington.

Narayan expects that even prosecutors friendly to medical marijuana may have less cover to refrain from pursuing criminal charges. Tacoma officials have delayed taking action on medical marijuana dispensaries while waiting for the Legislature to clarify the law.

King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that the governor's veto and the legislation's failure represented a big step backward.

"It put cops and prosecutors back in the position of trying to make this law work," he said. "That's not our role. If this has medical value, it should be dealt with by health care professionals."

When the new law takes effect July 22, there will be no wiggle-room left for most storefront dispensaries to claim they're legal, Satterberg said. But he also offered some reassurance to medical marijuana patients in Seattle and King County who have participated in a more low-profile marijuana distribution model - that of the nonprofit cooperative.

Over the past decade, some nonprofit cooperatives in Seattle have served thousands of patients, typically under the radar or with tacit approval from authorities. Such operations rely on the fact that while patients must grow their own marijuana or designate someone else to grow it for them, nothing in the law said they couldn't grow those plants together.

One such organization, based in an unmarked building in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, says it serves 2,000 patients with marijuana at less than street value by growing its own and compensating growers who belong to the collective. The Seattle Fire Department permitted the wiring for one of its marijuana grows.

Satterberg said that under his reading of the new law, a cooperative could have a 45-plant collective garden for every 10 patients - or 200 marijuana gardens, in the case of the Georgetown collective. Many of those would likely have to be in basements around the city, a troubling prospect because such grows can attract crime, he said.

"The organizations that have flown under the radar know how to fly under the radar, and that's a good thing," Satterberg said. "People who are sincere patient advocates are going to have to do their best to comply with the new rules. We're all going to have to be a little flexible in our approach to this. The law as it stands marks the beginning of the end of the highly advertised, aggressive-marketing, commercial dispensary."

Seattle medical marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt was relieved to learn of Satterberg's remarks, but said patients in other parts of the state might face prosecution for acts that would not draw the attention of law enforcement in Seattle.

"I'm happy to hear that the cooperatives and the true backbone of the medical marijuana system might be allowable under the law," he said. "The Legislature's failure and the governor's failure here is big, and that Satterberg is looking at ways to ameliorate that is encouraging. If you're a medical marijuana patient who's lucky enough to live in Seattle, great."

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, continue to conduct raids at dispensaries. Justice Department officials said in 2009 that, as a general rule, prosecutors should not focus federal resources on individuals who are in clear compliance with state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.

An initial proposal that lawmakers had approved included a statewide regulatory system for licensing medical marijuana producers, processers and dispensaries. But Gregoire vetoed the measure after federal prosecutors said state employees would not be immune from prosecution.

Kohl-Welles then pushed two other proposals to allow local jurisdictions to regulate dispensaries, but neither made it out of committee. The failed measures also means there will not be a statewide registry of marijuana patients - something designed to give them protection from arrest.

"While it is clear this issue has stalled for now, we cannot continue to ignore this issue - it simply will not solve itself," Kohl-Welles said.

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Mike Baker can be reached at http://twitter.com/MikeBakerAP

Associated Press writer Gene Johnson contributed from Seattle and can be reached at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/GeneAPseattle

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