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May 10, 2011 at 2:31 PM

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Medical marijuana dispensaries have new life

Posted by Jonathan Martin

A Legislative hearing is scheduled for Wednesday on a new proposal to allow nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries, reviving an idea that seemed just weeks ago to be dead.

The new bill, SB 5955, narrows the scope of the landmark medical marijuana reform vetoed by Gov. Chris Gregoire on April 29. The new bill would create the state's first a medical marijuana patient registry and decriminalize nonprofit "patient collectives" and allow them to grow up to 99 plants.

It solves Gregoire's chief but hotly disputed concern that state employees could be federally prosecuted for regulating dispensaries. But to appease the Governor, this version requires a city or county to pass a local ordinance before a dispensary can open in that jurisdiction. That means a handful of pot-friendly jurisdictions like Seattle -- where the mayor, city attorney and some council members favor outright legalization -- could become dispensary magnets while much of Eastern Washington could be dry.

"It's not clear we're going to support this," because of that provision, said Philip Dawdy, spokesman for the Washington Cannabis Association, a medical marijuana trade group.

Allowing nonprofit dispensaries also would ease concerns from Seattle and other cities about the potential proliferation of new, 45-plant "collective gardens." Those gardens, which were signed by the Governor in her partial veto last month, would be the only legal way for patients to band together to grow. But Seattle officials fear that without a dispensary system, collective gardens would sprout in sleepy neighborhoods across the city.

The patient registry embraced by law enforcement because it would provide a quick, centralized method to verify medical marijuana status but is despised among some patient groups for its potential to violate privacy. Washington is the only one of the 15 medical marijuana states without a patient registry, although federal prosecutors have sought access to Michigan's registry.

By decriminalizing dispensaries, the new version potentially gives the state a stronger argument should federal prosecutors object, as they did with the last version. But Attorney General Rob McKenna's staff, when asked by Democratic legislators for advice, punted on the issue. The ACLU is pressing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to clarify the Obama Administration's stance because of a series of recent threat letters sent in medical marijuana states.

The new version, unlike its predecessor, exempts medical marijuana sales from state sales tax.

The hearing on the bill is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday before the Senate Ways and Means committee.

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