Medical Marijuana Law: 'Playing It By Ear' In Washington

Saturday, November 27th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A year ago, "Jack" had never smoked pot and had no idea how strongly he would come to feel about Washington's medical marijuana law, approved by voters in November1998. But a year ago, the 67-year-old former paratrooper did not yet know he had a tumor in his lower back that was about to break his spine and leave him in agony. He now has strong words for the federal government and anybody else who tries to interfere with his effort to seek relief by smoking an occasional joint: back off.

"There are a lot of us going through some severe pains, and my government ain't doing nothing for me," he declared. "I need it. I have to have it," he added before lighting a joint in his Aberdeen home. "It makes you forget your problems and your pain."

That Jack and a friend who delivers his marijuana both asked that they not be identified illustrates the status of Washington's year-old medical marijuana law. Initiative 692 passed with 59 percent of the vote. Despite predictions it would lead to a movement to legalize drugs and cause a surge in marijuana use, neither has happened. Instead, physicians and law enforcers are developing professional guidelines. The state recently added Crohn's disease, a painful bowel disease, to the list of qualifying ailments that includes AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and "intractable pain," and it is considering a request to add hepatitis C. And it appears that few -- if any -- patients have been prosecuted. But serious obstacles remain.

The federal government has not relented in its opposition to legalizing marijuana for medicinal uses. The Justice Department is challenging voter-approved laws in Alaska, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington. Maine voters approved a medical marijuana law earlier this month. Authorities in Washington still don't know how to define a vague provision in the state law that limits patients to a 60-day supply of marijuana. Prosecutors are waiting for the courts, the Legislature or scientists to figure out how much pot is in a reasonable 60-day supply.

"We would love to have a (dosage) standard," Pierce County prosecutor John Ladenburg said. "We're playing it by ear and trying to do the right thing by what the people wanted."

Physicians at the University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center in Seattle are working on recommended guidelines for doctors, but Washington physicians still have legal concerns when it comes to prescribing marijuana, said Dr. Thomas "Mac" Hooton, medical director of Harborview's HIV-AIDS clinic.

"Marijuana is still classified as an illegal drug," Hooton said. "We have been warned by lawyers that we need to pay attention to that and be careful, even though the initiative attempts to give us some protection."

The most positive news from the federal government was a report earlier this year by the Institute of Medicine, a federal advisory panel, that said marijuana can help fight pain and nausea and should be tested further in scientific trials. JoAnna McKee, co-founder of a Seattle-based underground marijuana clinic called the Green Cross Patient Co-op, believes more physicians will recommend marijuana use once the experts finish the guidelines.

"I think we're better off than we were a year ago," she said.

Jack, the former paratrooper with cancer, credits marijuana with curbing his nausea, restoring his appetite and helping him sleep. But despite the year-old law, he asked that his real name be kept secret for fear state government would cut off payment for his regular medicine. Law enforcers are also frustrated because groups like the GreenCross that deliver marijuana are still breaking the law -- it is a felony to deliver a controlled substance -- but the initiative is so vague that it makes prosecution difficult, said Ladenburg, there arrested in January after Tacoma police found three marijuana plants in their home. Four months later, it filed charges against a Tacoma man who said the 157 marijuana plants found in his home were supplying pot for 11 patients with illnesses covered by the initiative.

Prosecutors in Seattle's King County are still waiting for the right "test" case that will help set boundaries for law enforcers, said Dan Satterberg, chief of staff to Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

"So far, we've been able to make the law work as the voters intended," he said.