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Medical marijuana: Federal Way elected officials discuss dispensary regulation law

Legislation to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, Senate Bill 5073, was introduced this session by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36th District). - Mirror illustration
Legislation to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, Senate Bill 5073, was introduced this session by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36th District).
— image credit: Mirror illustration

There is mixed support among Federal Way’s elected officials for a proposed state law in the works that, among other actions, would set up a regulatory system for medical marijuana dispensaries.

Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest, state Sen. Tracey Eide and state Reps. Katrina Asay and Mark Miloscia were all asked to give their opinion on a bill in the Legislature that would permit medical marijuana dispensaries under regulation by the state. This comes at a time when at least three dispensaries are trying to operate in Federal Way, but have been barred from doing so.

Eide — who voted in favor of the bill in the Senate — showed the most support. Asay and Priest expressed concerns over the fact that marijuana, however it’s being used, is illegal under federal law. Miloscia did not return requests for comment.

Legislation to regulate dispensaries, Senate Bill 5073, was introduced this session by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36th District). The measure passed March 2 in the Senate 29-20; it was voted out of the House Committee on Health Care and Wellness on March 23 with a “do pass” recommendation. It is scheduled for a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The law regulates how medical marijuana is produced and distributed to qualified patients. Key points include:

• Establishing a regulatory system through the state Department of Agriculture to give credentials to producers, who would be allowed to “plant, grow or harvest cannabis for medical use for wholesale to licensed dispensers and processors.”

• Establishing a regulatory system through the state Department of Health to give licenses to dispensers, which are defined as “medical organizations that are licensed to dispense medical cannabis for medical use to qualified patients.”

• No dispensary could operate within 500 feet of a school or church. A dispensary would not have to be licensed by local governments, and dispensers could have their licenses revoked or suspended for drug-related offenses other than for marijuana.

In Federal Way, at least three medical marijuana dispensaries, or co-ops, have sought to open. Two have been denied business licenses by the city, which are required under penalty of a $500-a-day fine. At least one, Conscious Care Cooperative, continues to operate. Conscious Care and another dispensary, Cascade Medical Center, have appealed their business license denials.

Federal Way city code allows business licenses to be denied if a business is conducting activity that’s illegal under state and federal law.

The theory that the dispensaries seeking to operate here are conducting illegal activity has been based on the businesses’ websites, and the fact that they have not denied that they intend to distribute marijuana. The business owners say that they only serve certified medical marijuana patients.

The state’s medical marijuana law allows an affirmative defense for patients and caregivers. Though no law specifically outlaws medical marijuana dispensaries, marijuana possession, use and distribution is illegal under state and federal law. Some jurisdictions, like King County, have indicated they will not prosecute medical marijuana patients who adhere to state regulations.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed in other cities, including Seattle and Spokane. Tacoma recently revoked the business licenses of 19 dispensaries after having allowed them to operate.

Support among legislative delegation

The strongest support came from Eide, who released a statement about her yes vote for the bill in the Senate. The law would ensure public safety and discourage abuse of medical marijuana laws, she said.

“To maintain a necessary medical avenue and provide the greatest public safety while doing so, revision to current law is necessary,” Eide said in a statement. “The proposal would establish a regulatory system for the growing, sale and purchase of medical marijuana by authorized patients with qualifying medical conditions. These are not individuals with headaches or the stomach flu — these are patients with serious, oftentimes life-threatening medical conditions. They have cancer or HIV/AIDS or another serious illness and need medicine in order to eat or just get through the day.

“Currently, patients are discriminated against for seeking out this medicine. They are then forced to seek it out underground, often subject to dangerous and trying situations.”

Eide described the state’s medical marijuana law — Initiative 692 of 1998 — as ambiguous on how medical marijuana patients obtain their medicine. She underscored that King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has come out in support of clarifying the law.

Asay, who has yet to vote on the law, said she is not up to speed on the latest medical marijuana reform bill. But she does support medical marijuana dispensaries, as long as distribution is regulated “like all pharmaceuticals.”

“If they’re regulated,” she said when asked, in general, if she supports allowing medical marijuana dispensaries. “If we’re going to have medical marijuana, we have to have some sort of dispensary system for that. It’s just fraught with conflict. There’s federal law in conflict with state law.  We have to be able to work it out so that we’re legal.

“Something needs to be done. I just don’t know if this bill does it; I haven’t seen it,” she said.

Miloscia could not be reached for comment. After several requests for comment, Miloscia spokesman Robin Boyes wrote in an email, “He’s apparently too tied up to call. There’s nothing I can do at this point.”

Legal concerns for mayor, city

In an interview and through a statement from city spokesman Chris Carrel, Priest pondered the effect of medical marijuana if it’s still illegal under federal law.

“If the sale of marijuana is illegal under federal law, the question is, does the supremacy act apply or not? Then we assume it does,” Priest said.

Priest was referring to the Supremacy Clause, a part of the U.S. Constitution that holds that federal law is ultimate and that judges in states must adhere to it. The Supremacy Clause has been used, for example, by the Supreme Court to nullify some state laws on school segregation.

But the federal government’s stance on medical marijuana has softened. In 2009, the United States Justice Department issued a memo stating that it would not focus resources on prosecuting medical marijuana patients who adhere to state law.

“The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department’s efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer. “As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

“I have very strong concerns no matter what action the state takes,” Priest said. “The city of Federal Way will be in a very difficult position if in fact (marijuana) continues to be illegal under federal law.”

Carrel’s statement listed several concerns that the city wants addressed as the Legislature moves forward with regulating medical marijuana:

• Cities could be exposed to liability under federal law, and liability under state law if the city denied business licenses to dispensaries

• There may be an unfunded mandate included in any law

• A medical marijuana distribution system “invites the participation of individuals with criminal records.”

Priest gave tacit support to regulating medical marijuana like pharmaceuticals.

“I can say that going forward, we should be using medical marijuana that’s produced by a regulated pharmaceutical company or the state as opposed to an unregulated approach to marijuana,” Priest said.

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