Medical marijuana: Tacoma rally sends Washington state law back to the hot seat | VIDEO

Washington state's medical marijuana laws are back in the hot seat following a clash between Tacoma and its cannabis dispensaries.

A rally with more than 300 medical marijuana advocates converged Oct. 19 at the Tacoma Municipal Building. The city's Tax and Licenses manager had issued cease-and-desist letters last week, ordering eight medical marijuana dispensaries to shut down by Saturday. The letters cited illegal business practices by the dispensaries.

On Tuesday, the Tacoma City Council agreed to allow the dispensaries to continue providing marijuana for patients — in anticipation that the state Legislature will revise medical marijuana laws in 2011. The city will not take action as long as the dispensaries appeal the cease-and-desist letters.

The city council's decision elicited cheers from the protestors. Tacoma activist Tony Anderson thanked the council for "stepping forward, taking the lead and putting the ball in the legislative court in a big way," he said. "Now this will force them to do the right thing and clarify the law."

The rally's core message centered on legal protection for patients as well as safe access to medical marijuana.

"We don't want to see 25,000 patients in the Tacoma area, served by all of these dispensaries, have to go back to the black market," said Steve Sarich, founder of CannaCare, a medical marijuana clinic in King County.

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.

Tuesday's rally featured several supporters for Sensible Washington, a political committee that led a recent petition for Initiative 1068. The initiative, which failed to garner enough signatures for this year's ballot, would have removed all criminal penalties involving adult use, possession and cultivation of marijuana.

At the rally, Seattle attorney Doug Hiatt criticized Tacoma's actions, saying the city has "taken a very narrow view of the law that's not consistent with the interpretation" taken by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Seattle and King County serve as a model in Washington state in terms of medical marijuana tolerance and enforcement.

Hiatt also lauded the newly formed Washington Cannabis Association, which will lobby in Olympia on behalf of medical marijuana providers and patients.

"If we cannot win in the Legislature in January, I want to see you on the street getting signatures... so we can fully legalize next year," Hiatt told the crowd following the Tacoma City Council's decision. "The only way to keep patients safe is to keep everybody safe. If we can't do it in the Legislature next year, let's do it at the ballot box in 2011."

State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) was a key player behind Washington state’s medical marijuana laws in 1998 and 2008. In a 2009 interview with The Mirror, she said there are legislators on both sides of the aisle who advocate for medical marijuana rights. However, some legislators avoid the medical marijuana issue out of fear that such support could come back to haunt them, she said.

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