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Originally published Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 3:30 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington's medical marijuana law needs fine-tuning

The recent attacks on two homes of medical-marijuana patients who are also providers has highlighted some flaws in Washington's current law. State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, proposes some changes that will still permit patients to get the medical marijuana they need.

Special to The Times

IN the past two weeks, we have seen two traumatic incidents involving medical marijuana.

On March 9 and again on March 15, the homes of two medical-marijuana patients who are also providers were the sites of violent home invasions. The victim of the first attack died from his wounds. The owner of the second home suffered injuries in a gunfight that also left one of his attackers critically wounded. These attacks highlight shortcomings in our law and the need for reform.

In 1998, the people approved Initiative 692 by a margin of 59 percent, which allowed doctors to authorize the use of medical marijuana for patients with terminal or debilitating conditions. While the law also allows patients to grow their own plants or designate a provider to grow them, it does not provide guidance on where to obtain seeds or cuttings. The law also states that a designated provider may serve "only one patient at any one time." The vagueness of the current law makes it very difficult for patients to get the medication they need and are legally entitled to.

Some are working to make medical marijuana more readily accessible to patients. Last June, the Change Dispensary opened its doors in Spokane and made no secret of the fact that it was providing medical marijuana to multiple patients. Its owners were arrested and charged with felonies.

Our law puts patients and providers in an impossible position. A patient or provider can comply with the law and still be subject to arrest, prosecution or seizure of medical marijuana. Often, a patient or provider must endure the stress, cost and embarrassment of a trial — and the patient must disclose private medical information — before being acquitted by a jury.

This failure to provide complete protection leaves everyone — patients, doctors, providers and law enforcement — confused about the rules. Because of this, patients and providers are often afraid to call on law enforcement for protection from burglars or even to report thefts or assaults.

It is time to provide qualified medical-marijuana patients complete protection under the law and to directly regulate the production and dispensing of cannabis. Patients should not have to fear arrest, home searches or property seizures by law-enforcement officers. Providers who want to help patients access medical marijuana should not have to risk prosecution and robbery.

As King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg recently told The New York Times, "By forcing this production to remain underground, you increase the risk of violence for everybody and you disburse that violence to residential neighborhoods and put everybody at risk."

More than a decade has passed since Washington's citizens clearly stated that physician-authorized medical use of marijuana should be legal. In 2011, I will introduce legislation to protect patients from arrest and prosecution and provide well-regulated, safe, consistent and secure sources of cannabis for medical use through licensed dispensaries. I hope citizens across the state will help me pass this legislation to improve the safety of patients, our loved ones and the communities in which we live.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee. She was prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5798, passed by the Legislature on March 11, which extends to all health-care professionals with prescriptive authority the ability to authorize the medical use of marijuana.

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