Olympia, Stop the Raids on Sick People

Friday, April 8, 2011

Let’s be clear: Senate Bill 5073, the medical marijuana legislation moving through the state legislature, isn’t perfect.  Different stakeholders with different motivations have made a lot of changes to it along the way.  It’s no one’s ideal bill.

The bottom line is whether it helps patients.  And for patients, this bill is a tremendous improvement over current law.

Before I came to work for the ACLU of Washington, I was a criminal defense lawyer for more than a decade.  I defended King County’s first medical marijuana trial.  I have represented and counseled too many patients.

A memory that will never fade is my first meeting with a couple who had just experienced a raid on their rural Washington home.  A dozen men dressed in black and carrying semi-automatic weapons crashed through their front door before dawn.  The couple jumped out of bed and ran to the hall.  Their teenage son had done the same.  This couple’s first image that morning was strangers in black shouting at their son to get face down on the floor while pointing guns at his head.

These were police, not robbers.

I struggled to maintain my professional demeanor as I watched this boy’s father tremble, try to fight back tears, and haltingly tell me how helpless he felt, how scared he was that his son was about to die.

His wife, you see, was a medical marijuana patient, and she was growing her own supply of plants.  She was also growing some marijuana for another man who had cancer.  The marijuana helped him keep food down.  He died shortly after the couple was raided and their plants destroyed.

Everything that happened to this family, and to the patient they tried to help, is perfectly legal under our current medical marijuana law.  Patients have nothing more than an “affirmative defense” – the opportunity to present a defense at trial, after they’ve already been raided, arrested, and dragged through court.

This has to stop.  No one suffering a terminal or debilitating medical condition should have to live in fear that people with guns might break down the door and terrorize their family.

SB 5073 can change that.  It would create a patient registry with the state Department of Health that officers would be required to check before seeking a search warrant.  It would exempt registered patients from arrest, search, and prosecution.  And because the ACLU is concerned about the security of registries, we’ve worked with the UW Computer Science & Engineering Privacy & Security Lab to ensure this registry will feature state of the art privacy-protecting features.  We’ve also made sure that patients who don’t want to register still maintain the affirmative defense, plus they would get a new protection from arrest.

SB 5073 would also make dispensaries explicitly legal under state law (they’re in a gray area at best right now), licensed and regulated by the Department of Health.  Cannabis growers and processors of edible products would be licensed through the Department of Agriculture.  These are crucial improvements, given the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2009 memorandum committing to a policy of not going after individuals in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state law.  Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington issued cease and desist letters to all of the dispensaries operating in Spokane because they “are not authorized under state law.”  So, Spokane patients are now forced to grow their own supply (assuming they are healthy enough, have appropriate space, and don’t have to start chemo tomorrow), or send their loved ones to the black market to buy them cannabis of unknown provenance.

That is, unless our legislators pass SB 5073.