Medical marijuana in WA: Politics and conclusions | Part 5 of series

Medical marijuana pushes the legal limits in Washington state. - Mirror illustration
Medical marijuana pushes the legal limits in Washington state.
— image credit: Mirror illustration

The Overton Window refers to a range of ideas considered acceptable at a particular moment.

The theory was named after Joe Overton, former vice president for a conservative think tank. He believed lawmakers were constrained by the political climate, which could be changed by educating both lawmakers and the public.

Rhetoric shapes and shifts the Overton Window. Under this concept, the promotion of extreme ideas makes formerly fringe ideas appear more acceptable. At the same time, ideas that were once acceptable become fringe or extreme. The Overton Window moves along a yard stick that represents two extremes of a certain political issue.

The public’s perception of marijuana has shifted significantly since the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which is credited for leading the criminalization of cannabis on a federal level. Since 1996, 13 states have adopted legal rights for medical marijuana patients.

State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) was a key player behind Washington state’s medical marijuana laws in 1998 and 2008.

In 2010, she plans to introduce legislation that outlines how patients can legally distribute, grow and obtain cannabis, she said. The discussion will include the possibility of a state registry, she said.

Kohl-Welles became a believer after witnessing the drug’s effects on her best friend, who was dying of cancer in 1998. The friend’s oncologist at Swedish Medical Center recommended marijuana.

“She took a couple of puffs, and she could take some soup and water, where before she couldn’t due to the effects of radiation therapy,” said Kohl-Welles, who was first elected to the state Senate in 1995.

In Olympia, she finds legislators on both sides of the aisle who advocate for medical marijuana rights. Kohl-Welles said she is not afraid of any stigmas associated with the issue — a luxury she owes to the overwhelmingly progressive 36th District that elected her. However, some legislators avoid the medical marijuana issue out of fear that such support could come back to haunt them. Some legislators see marijuana as an addictive gateway drug, and nothing more.

“People have very strongly held views about marijuana that I think are unreasonable,” said Kohl-Welles, who holds a Ph.D. in Sociology of Education. “That’s part of the cultural situation about drugs in this country. Even though this is a natural plant, it’s very challenging to effect social change when you’ve got myths and misconception.”

Under the radar

Most medical marijuana patients started as recreational users.

A thirty-something woman lives in a respectable middle class neighborhood near the King County Aquatic Center. The Federal Way resident is growing 36 plants in an upstairs bedroom, all kept secret from neighbors.

“I like growing my own. I get the best quality,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

Since childhood, she has suffered from joint hypermobility syndrome, among other ailments. Her prescriptions cover depression, anxiety, inflammation, fibromyalgia and muscle pain. She also lives off benefits from the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

However, it was a minor bust and a night in jail that prompted her to seek medical authorization. A police officer caught her smoking pot in the car with friends, she said. Eventually, she was volunteering for a cannabis clinic by tending gardens.

State laws are in conflict with the federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug, even with a doctor’s recommendation. Even if marijuana were full-blown “legalized” in Washington state, the Federal Way woman would remain private about her use — and skeptical of law enforcement.

“I always fear waking up to some federal agent shoving a gun in my face.”

Unlike the medical marijuana dispensaries that opened recently in Spokane, most clinics operate under the radar.

A clinic on the Eastside held a barbecue last month, attracting hundreds of patients. The middle-aged clinic owner roamed his suburban house with a wooden pipe. He foresees multiple business opportunities as the legal window for marijuana continues to shift in his favor. He also welcomes a free market approach to cannabis where competition will lower prices and raise quality.

People of all ages attended the barbecue, including many college-age adults. The front door stayed open, and a welcome mat with a giant cannabis leaf adorned the entrance. A cluster of plants swayed in the breeze by the back porch, with lots more growing inside.

Volunteers at the clinic tended to patients, parking and security. Several young “patients” noted it was their first time at the house.

With the right combination of cash and signatures, the patients can go downstairs to a room that doubles as a store. A dry-erase board displays the prices for edibles, and there are even marijuana-themed videos for sale. A young couple occupies two seats in front of the counter, each holding a rolled-up baggie of buds.

In the dining room upstairs, a petite and cheery Asian woman loads pot into a vaporizer. The contraption inflates a big clear bag that’s equipped with a plastic dispenser. The mix of friends and strangers passes the bag around, taking turns inhaling. The young woman declares that everyone is smoking the “strawberry cough” strain. Moments later, she is standing still in the front yard, giggling for a few minutes at a pitbull rolling around in the grass. Back at the kitchen table, a young man visits the clinic for the first time over a back injury, he said. He snickers when asked about the injury, acknowledging the correct lingo with a wink: “Yeah, that’s right, I’m a patient.”

On the front porch, an attractive blonde in her early 20s lights a cigarette, eager to make conversation upon her arrival from Bellingham. This is also her first time at the clinic, which she discovered online. She tells another smoker about wanting to treat the after-effects of a miscarriage.

In the kitchen, a suit-clad doctor chats with the clinic’s owner. In fact, not only is he the clinic owner, but he’s also a patient. The doctor, who writes recommendations for the clinic’s patients, complimented the owner on some cannabis-infused crackers.

In this temporary role reversal, it is the patient who medicates the doctor.

Check it out

Click here to read part 1 of the series, which explores the legal dilemma faced by medical marijuana patients in Washington state. There is also a video of cannabis crops and products.

Click here to read part 2 of the series, which examines 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.

Click here to read part 3 of the series, featuring thoughts from Sunil Aggarwal, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the medical geography of medical marijuana.

Click here to read part 4 of the series, which takes a look at alternative medical marijuana products such as bubble bath and lotion, as well as opportunities for cannabis education at schools such as Oaksterdam University.

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