By Carol M. Ostrom
Seattle Times health reporter
A proposal by state health officials to limit medical-marijuana patients to a pound and a half of pot plus a scattering of plants drew heat from both advocates and law enforcement — but for different reasons.
Advocates had argued for more than 70 ounces of harvested marijuana and a 100-square-foot growing area; law-enforcement officials pushed for a limit of three ounces of harvested pot, three mature plants and six immature plants.
The official draft rule was released Tuesday by the state Department of Health. The department was directed by the Legislature last year to use medical and scientific information to define how much marijuana patients with certain chronic, fatal or debilitating diseases can possess under Washington's medical-marijuana law.
The rule would limit patients to 24 ounces of harvested marijuana, six mature plants and 18 immature plants for the "60-day supply" allowed in the law.
An earlier Health Department recommendation called for a limit of 35 harvested ounces and a 100-square-foot growing area. But it was headed off by Gov. Christine Gregoire, who thought the amount was too large and wanted more input from law enforcement and medical providers.
Although Tuesday's filing starts a public-comment period, the Health Department, which already has gotten an earful from angry activists and worried law-enforcement officials, is hoping this draft will be the last.
The current proposal for a pound and a half of pot plus plants mimics a 2006 amendment to Oregon's medical-marijuana law, also passed in 1998. That amendment raised the amount of marijuana patients could possess from three harvested ounces and seven total plants, including no more than three mature plants.
The Washington rule, like the long, difficult process used to produce it, was immediately controversial.
"Why did they spend all that time and money and energy if we were just going to do the same as Oregon?" asked Joanna McKee of Green Cross Patient Co-op, a medical-marijuana patient-advocacy group. "If we wanted to be a part of Oregon, we wouldn't be a separate state."
And, she added: "What happened to the science?"
Steve Sarich, director of CannaCare, which provides legal assistance and starter plants to patients, said the low plant limits would force patients to obtain marijuana on the "black market" or to grow an illegal number of plants to get enough marijuana.
"This will create more patient felons in the state of Washington, because no one will ever be able to grow their own medicine and stay within those limits," he said.
Cowlitz County Sheriff Bill Mahoney's response to the proposed limits was terse: "Oh my." Asked to elaborate, he said: "Well, obviously, I think it's way too much." But it's a complex compromise, he added. "From an enforcement standpoint, some number is better than no number."
Law-enforcement officials earlier said their main concern is being able to distinguish legitimate patients from those hiding behind the law to grow and sell large amounts of pot.
Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the proposed rule's plant limits would be helpful for law enforcement. "They are easy to understand and those individuals who have large grow operations and try to hide behind this law will no longer be successful."
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who sponsored the bill to set the 60-day amount, said she was concerned the proposed limits are "more restrictive than what had been previously discussed." She noted the "values of compassion and empathy that are at the basis of this law," and urged all stakeholders to express their views to the Health Department.
Washington's law, passed by voters in 1998, allows patients with certain diseases to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana with a doctor's authorization. But the amount was never spelled out, leading to confusion and conflict between law enforcement and patients.
Karen Jensen, an assistant secretary for the Department of Health, said the task was "very difficult and challenging" because there was no definitive "FDA study" spelling out dosing amounts.
The draft filed Tuesday reduced amounts earlier considered by the Health Department and revealed to Gregoire's office in February. At that time, health officials said they planned to recommend 35 ounces of cultivated marijuana plus 100 square feet of plant-growing area.
Staffers for Gregoire, a former state attorney general who is up for re-election this fall, told Health Department officials the amount appeared to be on the high side, and that law enforcement and medical providers should be consulted.
Last month, the Health Department convened an advisory panel that included law-enforcement officials, advocates and only one doctor — a public-health HIV/AIDS expert who does not care for patients directly.
Department of Health spokesman Donn Moyer said other medical providers did not respond to requests to take part. "It wasn't for lack of trying" to engage them, he said.
The filing of the draft rule starts a rule-making process and a public-comment period. A hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 25 in Tumwater.
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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