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Citing Federal Pressure, Washington Governor Vetos Patient Access Bill

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By Steve Elliott of Toke of the Town

Citing supposed concerns about arrest of state employees (which has never happened in any medical marijuana state), Washington Governor Christine Gregoire on Friday vetoed almost all the significant portions of a bill which would have expanded safe access to cannabis and arrest protection for patients in the state.

“We cannot provide protection to one group of people — patients and providers — by subjecting another group of people — state employees — to arrest and prosecution,” Governor Gregoire told reporters at a 2:30 p.m. news conference on Friday.

“As governor whose number one priority is the well being of this state, I cannot take the chance that state employees would be prosecuted,” she said, even as she made sure that seriously ill patients would continue to be prosecuted. “What would you tell them if they are?”

This, of course, begs the question of what Governor Gregoire is going to tell all the patients and providers who already have been, and continue to be, prosecuted? Or maybe you have to be a career bureaucrat for the governor to care if you’re arrested or not.

SB 5073, approved by the Legislature, would have legalized medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington and would have at last provided long-sought arrest protection for the chronically and terminally ill state residents who qualify for the medicinal cannabis program.

Gregoire appeared eager to cast herself as a friend to medical marijuana patients, even as she shot down every significant provision of the bill which would have helped them. She ticked off a list of medical marijuana measures from the Legislature which she has signed, including one last year that expanded those who could authorize medicinal cannabis to include naturopaths and physician assistants.

She listed a few scraps of the original SB 5073 that she signed into law.

“I have kept sections of the bill which keep affirmative defense,” she said (patients already had an affirmative defense; they needed arrest protection). “Parental rights cannot be restricted solely due to the use of medical marijuana unless impairment can be shown in the parenting process. Medical marijuana patients may grow their own, designate someone to grow on their behalf, or participate in a collective.” (Patients already have those rights, as well.)

But then, citing fears of federal prosecution of state employees, Chrissy ingloriously and definitively dropped the ball.

“Possession of marijuana, medical or otherwise, can still be prosecuted in federal courts,” Gregoire said.

Gregoire noted that two years ago in the Ogden Memo, the federal government said they would not use their limited resources to prosecute patients and providers in states where it is legal — “Yet in the same memo, they said they retained the authority do so,” she said.

The governor said when she sought the opinions of both U.S. attorneys in the state, they left no doubt that they were willing to prosecute not only dispensary operators, but, incredibly, the state employees who license them, as well.

“They made an absolute commitment to me that they are free to prosecute, and that they could not and would not grant immunity to any state employees,” Gregoire said. “That is the conversation I had with them. It was in misbelief by many.”

“My foremost concern is that some provisions of this bill could put state employees at considerable risk of personal consequences,” Gregoire claimed.

“We started on a rewrite, but the legislative process ran out of time, and the bill that was passed did not address my concerns,” the governor said. “I remain open, and would very much like to work with the Legislature to establish a confidential registry of medical marijuana patients to prevent unfounded arrests and prosecutions of these individuals. Unfortunately, the arrest protections are intertwined with other rules that I cannot approve.”

The governor said that marijuana should be rescheduled at the federal level from Schedule I (high risk of abuse and no accepted medical value) to Schedule II (under which it could be medically prescribed under strict controls).

Asked if she believed the timing of Thursday’s federal raids on dispensaries in Spokane was a “signal” from the feds, Gregoire answered, “I don’t know; you’d have to ask them. Let me be clear: The landscape is changing. You don’t just get the letter that happened in Oakland and call it a day. We asked for an opinion. Colorado got an opinion. Rhode Island will get an opinion.”

Gregoire said that U.S. attorneys are “reinterpreting that Ogden Memo” from two years ago. “They are suggesting they have the right to enforce, and they very well may do so,” she said. “These raids are an indication of that.”

When asked about the continued operation of dispensaries in areas of the state where they are tolerated (for example, in liberal King County, home of Seattle), the governor seemed to leave the regulation of dispensaries to local control.

“There’s nothing locals can’t do,” Gregoire said. “There’s nothing standing in the way of the locals from taking action … They are a divided group. There are many cities who wanted me to sign the bill. There are many cities who wanted me to veto the bill.

Sounds an awful lot like we’ll continue to stuck — for the foreseeable future — with a confusing patchwork system of enforcement and interpretation which not only leads to spotty access and needless stress for patients — it also invites further federal raids due to dispensaries continuing to exist in a gray area of the law.

Despite the fact that the Ogden Memo explicitly stated the federal government would not go after medical marijuana patients and providers who were abiding by their state laws — and that, because of that memo, U.S. Attorney Ormsby repeatedly referred to dispensaries as being against Washington state law — Gregoire stubbornly refused to acknowledge that changing that state law would, therefore, have an impact on federal enforcement — which is, in fact, exactly what the memo indicated.

“Some have erroneously claimed that this bill could prevent federal authorities from taking the action they did yesterday,” Gregoire disingenuously said. “This is wrong.

“Some have asserted states’ rights,” Gregoire said. “Is it a state right to violate federal law?”

The governor reacted angrily to a question from one reporter who asked, “Are you gunning for a job in the Obama Administration?”

“Please,” the governor said, her voice trembling. “It has nothing to do with me, my future, or anything else. This is what I think is exactly the right thing to do, from my head and my heart.

“I believe these patients are entitled to protection, and I want them to have the medical marijuana they need and deserve,” she said, but not at the cost of placing state employees at the risk of federal prosecution.

When another reporter pointedly asked Gregoire if she knew of any state employees in other other state which licenses dispensaries ever being arrested, she quickly snapped, “No,” several times in an irritated manner.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “The landscape is changing. Colorado may have had it one way for a period of time. But the fact is they now have a U.S. attorney’s opinion which says you’d better look at what you’re doing.”

Article From Toke of the Town and used with special permission.

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