Pubdate: Wed, 21 May 2008
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Carol M. Ostrom, Seattle Times health reporter
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


A state Health Department proposal that medical-marijuana patients be 
allowed more than 2 pounds of pot every two months took law 
enforcement by surprise and prompted the governor to tell health 
officials to start over.

Faced with a legislative mandate to spell out what constitutes a 
"60-day supply" by July 1, the department in February briefed Gov. 
Christine Gregoire's office on its recommendation: Patients or 
caregivers could possess up to 35 ounces of cultivated marijuana and 
be allowed a plant-growing area of 100 square feet.

Gregoire promptly directed Department of Health Secretary Mary 
Selecky to solicit more comment from law enforcement and medical 
providers. "I wouldn't say she was upset" by the amount, said 
Gregoire's spokesman, Pearse Edwards, but she believed input had been 

The issue of how much marijuana a patient needs remains one of the 
most contentious parts of the law voters passed in 1998, which allows 
patients with certain chronic, fatal and debilitating diseases to 
possess a 60-day supply of marijuana with a doctor's authorization.

Last year, in an effort to help end conflict between law enforcement 
and patients or their pot-growing caregivers, the Legislature 
directed the state Health Department to define how much marijuana 
patients can possess under the law.

In four hearings around the state last fall, hundreds of patients and 
medical-marijuana advocates lined up to speak. But conspicuously 
absent from most hearings were the voices of two important 
"stakeholders": doctors and law-enforcement officials.

Doctors have a stake because under the law, they must authorize 
qualified patients to use marijuana.

And law-enforcement officers have a stake because they must decide 
whether to treat pot smokers and growers as patients or criminals.

Why the detour?

Now the Health Department says it can't meet the July 1 deadline for 
a final rule, though it hopes to have an official draft by then so it 
can gather public comment during the summer. Once it makes a 
decision, it isn't subject to a veto by the governor, although 
Selecky ultimately answers to Gregoire.

Medical-marijuana activists suspect the process got derailed by 
objections to the amount of marijuana the department planned to 
propose. Some worry that a process supposed to be guided by science 
has been hijacked by politics.

Officially, law-enforcement leaders say they just want a number -- 
any number -- for the amount of pot qualified users can possess. They 
say they're not doctors and they wouldn't presume to set an amount 
any more than they would tell a patient how much cholesterol 
medication to take.

But when pressed, they express discomfort with the amounts revealed 
to the governor in the briefing.

Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of 
Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he's been invited to an upcoming 
"stakeholder" meeting by the Health Department. He said the amounts 
originally proposed by the department "fly in the face of 
reasonableness from our perspective."

At 35 ounces, the amount of usable marijuana the health department 
planned to recommend is nearly a kilogram -- 2.2 pounds -- Pierce 
said. "That's a lot."

Cowlitz County Sheriff Bill Mahoney says the whole issue is now 
"very, very difficult for law enforcement to deal with" because 
nobody knows what constitutes a 60-day supply.

"From my standpoint as a sheriff, I just need the state to step up 
and define it. I don't care what the number is."

But, he adds: "Most of our cops, if they were forced to come up with 
a number, they'd say 3 ounces."

Basis of calculation

How did the state Department of Health (DOH) calculate the amount? 
According to its briefing memo, obtained through a Public Disclosure 
Act request, the department began with the average dosages given to a 
handful of patients enrolled in a federal medical-marijuana program.

It doubled that amount, because some patients might eat the marijuana 
instead of smoking it.

Sunil Aggarwal, a University of Washington medical and doctoral 
degree student who studies "medical cannabis" there, says the 
department's calculation used an incorrect multiplier.

Because "oral administration" of medical marijuana is much less 
efficient than smoking, the limit should be about 71 ounces for 
60-day supply, he has told health officials.

The 35-ounce amount is more than permitted in some places that allow 
medical marijuana use, but less than others. For example, Oregon 
allows 24 ounces of usable marijuana and six mature plants, while 
limits in California counties and cities range from 8 ounces to 3 
pounds in Humboldt, Santa Cruz and Trinity counties, the Health 
Department's memo said.

The federal program, called "Compassionate Investigational New 
Drug"program, supplies a limited number of patients with 300 to 450 
"joints" per month, or about 9 ounces, according to department research.

Karen Jensen, an acting assistant secretary for DOH, said the 
department is now conducting "informal conversations," with 
law-enforcement officials and medical providers.

"The rule needs to be something that works for law enforcement and 
the medical community and the advocacy community," Jensen said, 
although she and the governor's office deny that the current process 
is a "negotiation."

Aggarwal says he worries that there is political "backdoor dealing" 
going on, with law enforcement at the head of the table. "This was 
supposed to be a public process, and it was supposed to be based on 
the best available medical science. ... That's why it went to the DOH 
in the first place."

Jensen maintains "definitive science" is scarce. "We don't have some 
standard out there that we can go to. There are studies and reports, 
but no hard-core science out there for us to lean on."


The Legislature told the Health Department to base its decision on 
research, expert advice and public input. Public input, so far, has 
been overwhelmingly from patients and advocates.

Tom Curry, executive director of the Washington State Medical 
Association, says Selecky recently sought some names of doctors 
knowledgeable about medical marijuana or patients with conditions 
authorized under the law, such as cancer, HIV, or multiple sclerosis.

One is Dr. Bob Wood, director of the HIV/AIDS Program for Public 
Health -- Seattle & King County.

Wood, who doesn't care for patients directly these days, says he 
doesn't authorize patients under the law, but he did march to 
Westlake Plaza during the recent "free marijuana" rally.

Watching a few rail-thin patients in wheelchairs "smoking up a 
storm," Wood said he thinks there's "a lot of variation" in what 
patients need. Some may just need the occasional hit to deal with 
pangs of nausea, but some with serious or fatal diseases may simply 
want to stay high all the time.

"I would say, if that person isn't driving a school bus or driving 
down the road in a wheelchair, I don't see how they're hurting 
anybody," Wood says.

Still, despite state laws allowing medical marijuana use -- and the 
very limited federal program -- it remains illegal under federal law.

And because "science has been effectively blocked by the feds," Wood 
says, it may be hard for the health department to settle on a 
hard-and-fast number.

Pierce, a former Bellingham police chief, says sheriffs and police 
chiefs have always maintained that setting a limit on a 60-day supply 
"is really a medical decision that should be determined by physicians."

His group, he says, has told the department: "You shouldn't be 
talking to the law-enforcement community to find out what the right 
number is, any more than you should be talking to the advocate community."

But on this issue, Pierce says, doctors aren't willing to step 
forward. "Most physicians are reluctant to identify what the 
appropriate supply is, because many of them don't feel there is an 
appropriate supply."

Law enforcement's interest is simple, he says. "We don't want folks 
who are involved in the sale of drugs to be able to hide behind the 
medical-marijuana law. Because we think that's not good for our 
community ... [or] for the people who have a legitimate use for 
medical marijuana."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom