Medical marijuana in WA: Pushing the legal limits | Part 1 of series

En route to a patient's house, "Bob" whips out a sack of candy that smells like pot.

The plastic bag contains chocolates wrapped in fluorescent foil, along with a tiny clear cup of caramel — all infused with the active ingredients of marijuana.

As a medical marijuana patient, Bob treats pain caused by a past head injury and hepatitis C, among other ailments. He also suffers from grand mal seizures. "I'm in a lot of pain," he said.

The caramel, with a shiny purple star on the lid, provides multiple doses of medicine. So does an oatmeal cookie about the size of a hand — "that's 10 good doses for me right there," said Bob, who asked that a pseudonym be used for this report.

The Federal Way resident embraced medical marijuana about six years ago and entered another side of the cannabis culture. Patients refer to themselves as patients. Slang terms and stoner jokes are noticeably absent. Medication is a personal matter for patients, but also a mission. Most patients join an informal collective community of sorts, where sick people seek relief from one another through marijuana.

Doctors can't prescribe medical marijuana, but they can recommend it. Patients need a qualifying condition, which includes AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn's disease, cancer or fibromyalgia, among others. With a recommendation, patients gain access to a cooperative network of inconspicuous clinics that supply marijuana. Patients must provide medical records before learning a clinic's location. Patients can choose caregivers who are also allowed to retrieve medicine.

"If someone invented marijuana, they'd get a Nobel Prize because it's a miracle drug, although most people don't understand that," Bob said. "I have seen that stuff help wounds...there's some creams I put on sores, and my sores healed up so fast it was unbelievable."

In 1998, Washington state voters approved a law that removed criminal penalties and established a defense for qualified patients who possess or cultivate cannabis for medicinal use.

In 2008, the "60-day" supply for patients was defined as 24 ounces and 15 plants; both numbers have attracted intense debate from medical marijuana advocates. The law allows patients to exceed these limits if the patient can prove medical need, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Technically, the cannabis clinics are illegal. Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, in the same league as heroin. Washington's medical marijuana laws help patients with a legal defense in local or state courts. Federal laws ultimately trump state laws, however, and do not recognize the medical use of marijuana. Anyone found in violation could still be prosecuted under federal laws.

Tight-lipped patients

Despite legal protections, most patients keep a low profile under fear of being arrested by law enforcement or robbed by thieves.

Over the years, Bob has been involved with medical marijuana clinics in the area. One clinic is housed in a non-descript office complex, tucked inside an eclectic Seattle neighborhood.

A friend of his runs the clinic, which is registered to a medical marijuana advocacy group. The friend handles the finances, but the lease is in Bob's name. Inside the tiny room, there's a desk and several couches. Hand-written posters alert patients to the clinic's hours and rules. A slate-colored safe that's out of sight contains several boxes of baggies, each filled with about an ounce of marijuana buds. The fragrant baggies bear a tag with the clinic's name and logo. Patients are not allowed to medicate on the premises.

In West Seattle, one of Bob's fellow patients and clinic supporters was the target of a home-invasion robbery in mid-May. The patient lost plants and cash to the thieves, but still had a few young plants growing under lights in the basement. The sweet smell of marijuana permeates this non-descript middle-class home. Two water pipes — also known as bongs — sit in the front room, along with a tray of crumbled cannabis, a mini-baggie of Chicklets-style green gum, and a couple of prescription bottles containing marijuana. The patient suffers from hepatitis C and arthritis, and grows six months of medicine at a time for personal use while supplying other patients. The patient claims to not profit from the marijuana, instead relying on Social Security to pay the bills.

After the home-invasion robbery, Seattle police treated the patient with dignity and respect — and did not confiscate any medicine, the patient said.

Law enforcement

The biggest roadblock for medical marijuana, legally speaking, is the federal government's classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance.

"A national policy would be helpful," said Don Pierce, executive director, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Pierce said a major problem in Washington state is the conflict with federal law when it comes to enforcement. Different rules apply to drug task force cases that involve federal agents.

In 2008, the Washington State Department of Health issued guidelines on the definition of a 60-day supply. These guidelines have made enforcement easier, Pierce said. However, some residents hide behind a medical marijuana defense in cases that appear to involve manufacturing for sale or other "nefarious purposes," Pierce said.

Pierce started his law enforcement career in 1970, eventually serving as police chief in Normandy Park, Tukwila, Bellingham and Boise, Idaho. He worked in Washington state when the medical marijuana initiative passed in 1998, along with an amendment to the law in 2007.

"We in law enforcement thought (the medical marijuana law) was going to be a way bigger problem than it turned out to be," Pierce said, adding that the main problem was implementation of the law.

"We don't spend very much time in our meetings talking about medical marijuana," Pierce said.

In fact, Seattle and King County are considered the state's havens for medical marijuana rights. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg is viewed by some local patients as a prominent public official on their side.

As the state's largest urban area, King County has more experience with medical marijuana compared to other counties. That experience has an influence on the internal standards and procedures of law enforcement, Satterberg said.

"It's our job to enforce the law," he said, noting that the current medical marijuana laws are not well written. The idea is to approach the spirit of the law and allow people who are truly sick to find relief, Satterberg said. He referenced a May 26 incident in Seattle, in which a medical marijuana patient was robbed by fake drug enforcement agents, then had several cannabis plants confiscated by police. Satterberg called this particular incident a success because no one got hurt, and the patient was able to keep 15 plants as allowed by law, he said.

"I don't want to prosecute any sick people," Satterberg said.

Others call the May 26 incident a violation. Mark Spohn, the Seattle patient who was robbed, said in news reports that he was cultivating more than the 15-plant limit in order to help supply fellow patients.

King County may serve as a model for Washington state in terms of medical marijuana tolerance, but still has a long way to go, said Seattle-based attorney Douglas Hiatt. Specifically, Hiatt called the guidelines for a 60-day supply "a step backward." Patients often struggle to fill the gap between one harvest and the time it takes a new batch of plants to reach maturity, he said.

"What the Department of Health has done is unconscionable," said Hiatt, who represents patients across the state, usually at no cost. "You couldn't get a 60-day supply out of 15 plants unless you're a master gardener."

Check out part 2

Click here to read the next installment of this series, which will examine the efforts of medical marijuana supporters in Washington state, including Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle-based attorney who donates his services to defend patients; Steve Sarich, an outspoken advocate who runs a support network in King County; Ken Martin, who suffers from a brain tumor; and two Federal Way area patients who grow their medicine.

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