Washington lawmakers to feds: Don’t mess with the Evergreen State
Washington State has long had a schizophrenic relationship with medical marijuana.
The state has had a voter-approved medical cannabis law on its books for 14 years, but has yet to set up a system for the legal distribution of the medicine. Its Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire, last year approved a portion of a bill allowing patient cooperatives to grow up to 49 cannabis plants—and then vetoed another portion that would have allowed state agencies to regulate the cannabis industry.
But while Washington’s legislators can’t seem to agree on much of anything when it comes to compassionate use, there’s one point on which they definitely are of one mind: Nobody—not even the federal government—comes into their state and pushes them around.
So when the feds got it in their heads to start raiding unlicensed dispensaries across eastern Washington last year, Gregoire responded by joining with Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee in very publicly petitioning the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug. Such a change might allow doctors to legally prescribe cannabis to patients and pharmacies to dispense it. The spectacle of two U.S. governors—one on the West Coast and one on the East, one a Democrat and the other an Independent—openly criticizing federal marijuana policy made international headlines and proved a major embarrassment to the Obama administration.
Then, last month, 42 Washington legislators—including seven Republicans—signed off on a petition to the DEA declaring their support for Gregoire’s request. The lengthy missive was summed up in a single sentence:
“It is clear that the long-standing classification of medical use of cannabis in the United States as an illegal Schedule I substance is fundamentally flawed and should be changed.”
The bipartisan message to the DEA—and, by extension, to re-election-seeking President Obama—was clear: Don’t mess with the Evergreen State.
The petition was written and driven by Washington Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a key cannabis-patient advocate in the legislature and the author of the bill Gregoire partly approved/partly vetoed last year. Along with corralling signatures, Kohl-Welles also introduced Senate Joint Memorial 8017—essentially, the same letter directed to the White House, Congress and the head of the DEA—in the legislature.
That measure died without coming to a vote, again suggesting a conflicted attitude toward the medicinal plant: Nearly a third of Washington’s legislature signed the letter to the DEA to reclassify marijuana, but a nearly identical letter to the president and Congress failed to even make it out of committee.
In a telephone interview with CULTURE, Kohl-Welles said reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug might help give state officials legal cover to allow and regulate dispensaries in the face of outright threats from the feds.
“Medical marijuana has been part of the law in Washington since 1998—patients can grow marijuana or have their designated caregivers grow it for them,” Kohl-Welles says. “But dispensaries are not legal in Washington. They’re not unlawful, either—the law is just silent about that. My bill last year would have allowed collective gardens for up to 10 people, which we called ‘nonprofit patient centers.’”
“The governor vetoed that part of the bill because she got very worried that the feds might come and arrest and prosecute state employees handling the licenses. I didn’t think that could happen, but I had conversations with our attorney, who said it could, in fact, happen.”
Take Some Initiative
In November, Washington voters will vote on a measure—Initiative 502—that would make the state the first in the union to legalize cannabis for recreational use. More than 241,000 registered voters signed petitions to qualify the measure for the ballot. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has also called for legalization.