Need for clarity on state law concerning medical marijuana | Editorial

Albert Einstein once said nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.

I would have to disagree. There is something more destructive: Passing laws that either nobody understands or nobody wants to enforce.

This is exactly the situation Maple Valley currently faces with the issue of medical marijuana. Green Society Group, which opened up April 20 in Frontier Square, has apparently unintentionally thrown back the curtain on our legal system to reveal just how convoluted it is now.

In July 2011 the Maple Valley City Council passed a moratorium on medical marijuana collective gardens and dispensaries. This was done in response to a state law legalizing the possession and growing of medical marijuana, large sections of which were vetoed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Many of those sections contained clauses pertaining to the regulation of collective gardens and dispensaries. Because parts of the bill were left out the result is a legal nightmare, particularly for city governments. Nobody knows what it means or how the law is to be enforced. This has left the cities with the responsibility of handling it in terms of land use and zoning.

Yet, at the same time all of what the state legalized is still illegal under federal law, but the federal government has not taken any action to resolve the discrepancy.

In the meantime the cities are stuck at ground zero.

The city faces one of the strangest legal conundrums since Prohibition, which is a tad unfair to Prohibition, because there wasn’t anything ambiguous or unclear about it.

Under federal law, the growing, selling, purchasing or possession of medical marijuana is considered a felony. Under state law, however, it’s perfectly legal. But, according to the city’s moratorium….well, as City Manager David Johnston put it, they really don’t know whether it’s legal or not, because there isn’t a clear cut definition of what constitutes a dispensary as opposed to a management company.

As Prohibition demonstrated, though, a law isn’t worth the paper or ink used to write it if it’s not enforced.  The King County Prosecutor’s Office has ostensibly told the city it will dismiss any felony charges brought to them regarding medical marijuana gardens or dispensaries. On a federal level, the Drug Enforcement Agency will also not take any action unless outright, flagrant violations of municipal or state law occur.

To put it plainly, there’s a federal law that’s not being consistently enforced by the DEA, a fractured state law and a city moratorium that is either superfluous under federal law or potentially inapplicable depending on one’s interpretation of the state law.

If you’re not confused by this point, you’re either a lawyer or you’re not paying close enough attention. And even if you’re a lawyer you should be slightly confused.

The issue here isn’t about the legalization of medical marijuana. It’s about the lack of legal clarify and consistency, and the victims are city and law enforcement officials who have had the buck passed onto them. It’s not fair for them to have to wade through this legal mire and contradiction between state and federal law when they have no power to change it.

When those who are supposed to uphold the law don’t even understand a law, something’s wrong, and it’s usually the law itself.

The state legislature needs to do what it can to resolve this matter by either repealing the law in its entirety and reintroducing a modified version or adding sections to the existing law that would address these problems. And the governor, whether it’s Gregoire or a new one, must either sign the bill as it is or veto it completely.

At the same time, this entire legal fiasco could also be resolved by a single person, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.

The DEA administrator has the authority to classify a drug as Schedule I or II. Schedule I makes it illegal under any circumstances to use, grow or sell. Schedule II allows a drug to be sold and used for medicinal purposes.

Leonhart has two choices. She can continue to keep medical marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug, but she has to accept responsibility for the decision by enforcing the law consistently, not handing it off to local law enforcement who are caught between a rock and a hard place. If this option isn’t feasible or practical, than she needs to consider reclassifying medical marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which would give the states the ability to regulate it properly. This is why the City Council voted to support Gregoire’s letter to the Leonhart asking her to reclassify medical marijuana.

To quote a tired, cliche, but ever so true saying, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You can’t ban a substance and then be wishy-washy about it enforcing the ban.

Until that happens, unfortunately, cities like Maple Valley will be stuck with it.


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