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Originally published Friday, February 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Washington Voices

States must tackle medical-marijuana issue

State legislatures around the nation have avoided approving medical marijuana laws — mostly out of fear they would be labeled as soft...

State legislatures around the nation have avoided approving medical marijuana laws — mostly out of fear they would be labeled as soft on crime.

Yet it's pretty clear the public has sympathy for those who truly need marijuana to treat diseases such as glaucoma or to ease the suffering caused by cancer. As a result, voters in 10 states — including Washington and Oregon — have taken the law into their own hands and approved medical-marijuana initiatives.Unfortunately, as can often be the case with voter-approved laws, there can be some unintended consequences. Sure, that happens when laws are made by elected legislators, but it happens less often. The legislative process provides for a debate on the issues that can expose potential problems.

One of the areas not always fully considered with voter-approved medical marijuana laws is the impact on workplace safety. It's now become an issue in Oregon.

Under Oregon's 1998 medical-marijuana law, employers do not have to allow workers with approved medical-marijuana cards to smoke on the job. However, there is no mention about accommodation of workers who smoke the drug at home before coming to work. What if these workers have dangerous jobs in which being physically and mentally sharp is critical to keeping themselves and their co-workers alive?

Two years ago, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled against a registered medical-marijuana user who was fired from his job after failing a urine test. However, the court's decision was extremely narrow and did not fully answer the question about the use of marijuana outside of the physical workplace.

This is clearly a tricky issue. The will of the voters as well as the needs of those with serious health problems need to be juxtaposed against worker safety. Oregon's Legislature took a run at coming to a consensus but failed. The matter will be looked at again next year.

Frankly, this is an issue that would be best addressed by Congress and federal agencies. We believe medical marijuana should be treated the same as any prescription medication. If the drug has side effects that put workers at greater risk of injury or death, workers should be reassigned to a safer job while on that medication.

We can't see that happening in the near future. Congress doesn't have the political courage needed to take action.

So, until that day comes, states will have to tackle the issue. Workplace safety has to be the top priority.

— Union-Bulletin, Walla Walla, Feb. 26

A small price to pay for a big investment

For a modest investment of $3 million, state lawmakers could help ease the shortage of primary-care physicians across Washington.

The South Sound, like Eastern Washington and other sectors of the state, has a shortage of primary-care doctors. New physicians can make more money by going into a specialty.

The shortage of primary-care doctors reduces the quality of care in a community, and it fills emergency rooms with uninsured patients who turn to the ER for primary-care needs such as sore throats and earaches. Cost of treating those patients is expensive, and the cost is shifted to patients with medical insurance.

Everybody loses.

Leaders of the Healthy Washington Coalition, a statewide lobbying group of 65 health-care agencies and associations, want to increase funding for the Washington State Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program. With an investment of $3 million, the state would add opportunities for 100 physicians to receive school-loan repayment grants of up to $25,000 a year for three years. In exchange for having a portion of their medical-school costs covered, the new physicians would have to agree to serve as a family-care physician in an underserved portion of the state for three years. Experience shows most graduates of the program serve for six years.

That's a huge benefit for a small investment of state dollars. The $3 million wasn't in the original House budget. The Legislature should look favorably upon this proposal.

— The Olympian, Feb. 25

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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