Washington House Committee Passes SB 5073

Senate Bill 5073, the Washington State bill which would implement voluntary patient registration and create licensing for medical marijuana dispensaries, has passed the House Health Care and Wellness Committee with a 6-5 vote which local press describes as “mostly partisan.” Some believe the bill offers a better way to oversee medical marijuana use in Washington, while others feel it may lead to abuse of the system.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), told the press, “Right now we have such ambiguity in our law regarding our protection for authorized medical marijuana patients, and I hate to see that.”

Marijuana has been legal for medical use in Washington since the approval of Initiative 692 thirteen years ago, but the law did not address specifics about how people qualified to use the drug are able to acquire it. Under the rule, patients are allowed to grow small amounts for themselves, or they may designate a provider to grow it for them, but dispensaries are not addressed.

If passed into law, Senate Bill 5073 would authorize dispensaries and license them through the State Health Department.

John Schochet, an attorney from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office said that whether or not they’re technically legal, dispensaries have become a fact of life in the state because of the number of patients who either cannot grow their own marijuana or cannot find a personal provider.

“Given that we have a medical marijuana system in the state, dispensaries in some form are inevitable,” Schochet said. He continued, “We want to approach the problem from the perspective of how can we do this in a way that is good for communities?”

Thus far, local governments around the state have addressed the dispensary issue in different ways. In King County, the county prosecutor feels such businesses are illegal, but hasn’t taken any action against them, while the City of Tacoma has sent cease-and-desist notifications to dispensaries, but then backed off after medical marijuana advocates protested.

According to Randy Lewis, Tacoma’s lobbyist, “The city has not said that we think dispensaries are the way to go, necessarily, but no one has suggested anything else. We just want clarity. That’s the bottom line.”

If it passes, the bill will also implement a voluntary registry for medical marijuana patients to make it easier for law enforcement officers in the state of Washington to discern whether or not a person in possession of pot has actually violated the law.

The House committee made some changes to the bill, which had already passed the Senate in a 29-20 vote, mostly by eliminating amendments that were added during the floor vote in the Senate, including a requirement that dispensaries be nonprofit, and a provision that would allow the local prohibition of dispensaries, and another requirement that the Health Department cap the number of licenses issued in each county based on the number of patients residing there.

The committee added provisions as well, including protecting patients not on the registry from being arrested for possession.

Representative Bill Hinkle (R-Cle Elum), a member of the Health Care and Wellness Committee expressed disappointed in the changes made to the bill, and the removal of the restrictions on dispensaries.

Said Hinkle, “It’s [the bill] got holes you could drive a truck through,” said Hinkle of the bill, though he said he was not sure how specifically to improve the measure.”

Also opposing the bill are the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the Washington State Pharmacy Association, and the Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.

In order to become law, the proposal must next pass a vote on the House floor, be reconciled with the version that passed the Senate, and be sent to the governor to be signed.

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