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Medical Pot Smokes Police

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Mar. 6, 00
Herald, The (WA)
Copyright: 2000 The Daily Herald Co.
Author: Cathy A. Logg
Officers Operating In Fog Of 'Very Vague' Legislation The medical marijuana law passed by Washington voters in 1998 has police in a haze as they try to enforce it. "The Legislature needs to go back to work and tighten things up, and that's fine," Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Scott Smith said Friday. "They do that all the time." The confusion was exemplified this week in Marysville when police had to block the street and evacuate the area around State Avenue and Eighth Street NE, including the City Center Motel, 810 State Ave. During the evacuation, officers encountered one room at which no one answered the door, but officers wanted to ensure no one was inside, Marysville police Cmdr. Ralph Krusey said. The manager provided a key for officers to check inside. Police found no one, but discovered about 30 marijuana plants in the bathroom, Krusey said. Officers seized the plants and left behind a police business card to let the occupants know where the plants were. The room was registered to a 30-year-old man, police said, but a 64-year-old woman also may have been staying there. Motel personnel said the room had been occupied for about two weeks. Later, the man and woman went to the police station to claim the marijuana, saying they were entitled to use it under the new medical marijuana law, Krusey said. Police did not return the plants because the two could not provide documentation of their medical authorization, he said. Officers did not arrest the two, but referred the case to prosecutors, Krusey said.
"The new marijuana law just came into effect last year," he said. "Prior to that, it was illegal to possess any amount." Krusey wasn't sure exactly what documentation was necessary to prove authorization, so he consulted state law books. "I think they have to have a prescription for it. I'm not sure that they can legally grow the marijuana," he said. Other police also said those authorized to use marijuana medicinally aren't allowed to grow it, but have to go to a pharmacy to get it and make sure it's free of contaminants. Some police think it has to be in a prescription container with the patient's name on it, like other controlled drugs.
Everett police Sgt. Boyd Bryant said generally, people who qualify for medical marijuana are not in the initial phases of an illness. "You obviously want to be compassionate to the people who are terminally or seriously ill," Bryant said. "All of us are concerned about what happens when that happens and make sure the doctor is able to help you maintain some sense of dignity and mental acuity.
(Police) are not out there looking to make a statistic on the backs of someone who is terminally ill." If officers are unsure about whether to arrest someone who possesses marijuana but who cannot provide the proper medical authorization, they can write an informational report that will be reviewed by supervisors or prosecutors, and the information can be verified with the person's physician the next day, Bryant said. They probably will confiscate the drugs until the issue is settled, he added. Everett has encountered few such cases, he said. Mountlake Terrace and Marysville haven't encountered any previously, authorities said. That's a good thing, since other questions remain unanswered or ill-defined by the law, police say. "It's very vague," Krusey said. The law does not specify how approved patients were to obtain marijuana, which remains illegal to buy or sell under state and federal drug laws. Some people grow their own marijuana, while others get it from organizations formed to provide it for medical needs, such as Capitol Hill Compassion in Action or Green Cross. Patients don't get it from pharmacies, according to the staff at Providence Everett Medical Center's Pacific Campus pharmacy.
It's not a legal prescription item in Washington because it hasn't received federal Food and Drug Administration approval. The law allows an authorized person or their primary caregiver to have up to a 60-day supply. The person with the marijuana has to have an authorizing statement from a licensed physician, must have a valid identification and must be at least 18 years old. And just because marijuana may be legal for some people to use doesn't mean they have carte blanche with it, police said. Marysville's jail doesn't allow smoking, and no exception would be granted for marijuana smoking by inmates in their cells, although the issue hasn't arisen there, Krusey said.
Similarly, while alcohol is legal to possess and consume, people are not allowed to drive under the influence, nor would they be allowed to drive under the influence of marijuana, Bryant said. "They've got to know that just because they're in possession of it for medical therapy, it doesn't legitimize other illegal conduct," he said. The law has not defined how many plants constitute a prescription or what a daily supply is, Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Jan Jorgensen said. "Somebody may smoke three (marijuana cigarettes) a day; somebody else may smoke many more," she said. The state's law enforcement community didn't give the law a lot of support because the bill was loosely written, Smith said. The average street officer is not going to know exactly what the law says, he said. That's why the law needs to be more specific, he said. "You've got to give the officers the tools to be able to do the job right. "In this case, absent something that gives the person authority to possess the marijuana, the officers have to rely on their judgment on what to do and whether to arrest the person. They're going to confiscate it and should. "I would not tell my officers that if someone says to you, 'I need that for medical purposes,' just because they say it's so, doesn't make it so," Smith said.