(Posted at 3:30 p.m., updated, and moved up.)
Nixing far more of a medical-marijuana bill than she had telegraphed that she would, Governor Chris Gregoire vetoed nearly every section of an omnibus bill today that was intended to clarify a messy tangle of ambiguities in a 13-year-old law for sick people and their care providers. Arrest protection for patients (who can currently be arrested and only raise a defense in court), cultivation licenses, and dispensaries were all scratched by the governor. In explaining her decision, Gregoire reiterated her concern that the bill's edict to license dispensaries would subject state Department of Health employees to federal prosecution. But, in addition to vetoing dispensaries, she ultimately removed a patient registry and its ensuing arrest protection because it "is intertwined with the other parts of the bill," she said in her Capitol Building office.
- Photo by Cienna Madrid
- Gregoire: "I am accutely aware of how important this is for medical patients."
What's left is "window dressing," said Alison Holcomb, the drug policy director of the ACLU of Washington.
Gregoire added a twist to her familiar argument—that federal charges "would" be raised against state employees, an argument that has been roundly debunked—by saying, "The landscape is changing." She cited letters from federal prosecutors in Rhode Island, Colorado, and Oakland in recent months similar to one issued in Washington this month.
Gregoire was resolute. "We cannot assure protection to patients in a way that subjects another group to prosecutions," she said. "That is not acceptable to me." Asked three times if she had any example of a state employee being prosecuted for administering one of the many medical-marijuana licensing programs in the US, Gregoire said, "No, no, no."
Her position was immediately denounced. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced that Gregoire's argument was a "red herring at best" and added, “I am profoundly disappointed that at the 11th hour and 59th minute Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed the central operative sections of the medical cannabis legislation." Meanwhile, Mayor Mike McGinn said in a statement that the veto would "leave us with the same problems that we currently face: too many patients have to take unnecessary risks to obtain their medicine, confusion for law enforcement, a proliferation of dispensaries across Seattle, and an inability to regulate dispensaries properly."
What remains in the bill? Permission for patients to grow up to 45 plants in collectives of up to 10 people. Gregoire said her veto allowed 20 days for the legislature to pass another medical marijuana bill—perhaps one that allowed for arrest protection.
Wearing disdain in her expression, Gregoire insisted that she hadn't vetoed the bill as an appeal for future work with the Obama Administration but was based on her—again, frivolous—argument that state workers would be prosecuted. "This is about me being the governor of the state of Washington," she insisted. "It has nothing to do with me or my future or anything else."
Holcomb, who is also a former defense attorney handling medical-marijuana cases, is intimately familiar with the current medical marijuana law and the memo issued by federal prosecutors. She says the landscape hasn't changed. "On the one hand, Gregoire wants to provide patients safe access to medical cannabis. But on the other hand, she offers an excuse for gutting the legislation that holds no water."
"What is concerning to me is Gregoire's repeated statement that patients would remain exempt from prosecution," Holcomb continues. "Under state law, that has never been the case. By stripping out the regulatory section... patients continue to be subject to arrest and prosecution under state law."
Is there any hope that a Democratic governor wouldn't veto a bill so broad?
Dow Constantine, the King County Executive who may run for governor next year, "supports the purposes of the bill," says his spokesman Frank Abe. "He agrees we need to bring the production and distribution of medical marijuana above ground and into the light of day."