State on right path on marijuana law
The Olympian • Published June 13, 2008

What constitutes a 60-day supply of medical marijuana?

That’s the question officials at the state Department of Health are wrestling with as they comply with a state law requiring them to set the limit.

It’s a tough decision, but one that rightfully belongs in the hands of health professionals.

The road that led to this juncture began in November 1998 when 58.9 percent of Washington voters approved Initiative 692. The ballot proposition permits the medical use of marijuana by patients with terminal or debilitating conditions. Nonmedical use of marijuana is still prohibited, but under I-692, physicians are authorized to advise patients about the risks and benefits of the medical use of marijuana. Qualifying patients and their primary caregivers are protected from prosecution if they possess marijuana solely for medical use by the patient.

But how much marijuana can a physician legally prescribe to a patient?

The initiative does not answer that question. Last year, state lawmakers changed the law to give qualifying patients a defense if their marijuana use is challenged in court. The legislation also required the state Health Department to define what constitutes a 60-day supply.

Health officials conducted a series of public hearings across the state to seek comments and guidance. They recommended 35 ounces as a sufficient supply. They also said a marijuana growing patch should not exceed 100 square feet.

Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered officials to take a second look. The governor said law enforcement officials, prosecutors and other key players were under- represented during the public hearing process.

So health officials last week convened a panel that included law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, the American Civil Liberties Union, a physician, a patient using medical marijuana and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, the sponsor of the legislation calling for the limit.

Other individuals listened to the conversation, which proved to be very interesting.

Panel members said finding the right number is tricky business because the potency of the drug can vary on many factors, including the weight and height of the patient, his or her tolerance to the drug and whether the cannabis is smoked or ingested. “We don’t know until we use it how much we’re going to need,” said Joanne McKee, co-founder of Green Cross, an organization that provides medical marijuana for those in need.

Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the amount is a medical decision that should be determined by physicians. “We think that if the amount is set and it’s medically defensible by the mainstream medical community, we’re OK with it,” he said.

Dr. Bob Wood, director of HIV/AIDS Control for Public Health — Seattle & King County, advocated that a 60-day supply be defined at a higher amount so fewer people are taken to court. “It just creates anxiety and discourages people from trying it,” he said, referring to the need to bring clarity to the issue.

The state has come a long way. The discussion has evolved far beyond whether marijuana has medicinal benefits and should be legally prescribed to patients. The question is how much marijuana constitutes a legitimate supply for two months.

We’re confident that the professionals at the Department of Health will arrive at a reasonable answer by July 1 that is legally defensible and medically appropriate.