Friday, January 22, 2010

Pot ruling may not have big impact on Seattle

Supporters of Washington's medical-marijuana law say Thursday's ruling
by the state Supreme Court allowing police to arrest a patient or search
his home is a major setback. But exactly how it will play out in
increasingly pot-friendly Seattle isn't so clear.

The state's law, the court determined, doesn't protect those with a
medical authorization from an arrest or search, and only allows them to
present a medical-marijuana defense after the fact at a trial.

The 8-1 ruling upheld the conviction of Stevens County resident Jason
Fry, arrested in 2004 for having 2 pounds of pot.

The justices said sheriff's officers who smelled marijuana smoke at his
home had probable cause to believe a crime was committed — even
after Fry presented them with an authorization from his doctor. In that
case, a Stevens County judge had ruled Fry wasn't a qualifying patient.

Thursday's decision specified that a judge must allow a jury to decide
whether someone is a qualifying patient under the law.

In Fry's case, his conviction stands because a defense lawyer also
conceded that Fry's anxiety and depression didn't qualify him for
medical pot under the law.

Dissenting Justice Richard Sanders argued that state voters intended to
protect qualifying patients from being denied "any right or privilege"
for their use of marijuana when they passed Initiative 692 in 1998,
which legalized the use of marijuana for people suffering from terminal
and debilitating illnesses.

A decade later in 2008, the state established a limit of 24 ounces of
usable marijuana and 15 plants for a qualifying patient's 60-day supply.

Thursday's ruling was "a disaster for us," said Steve Sarich, executive
director of the Kirkland-based patient-advocacy group, CannaCare.

"It basically says that no matter what, they can arrest you at will,
prosecute you at will, put you through the system, and cost you
thousands in legal fees, even though they know you're a legal patient.
That's just wrong. We are guilty until we can prove ourselves innocent."

The effect of the decision, Sarich said, will be to "embolden police and
prosecutors — at least outside of King County — to continue to
arrest and prosecute innocent patients."

In Seattle, it's possible the ruling won't stop any patients from using
marijuana — but simply gives options to law enforcement that are
unlikely to be used.

Since voters approved a measure in 2003, pot busts have been the lowest
priority for Seattle police. Department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb
said Thursday that "marijuana enforcement is still our lowest priority
per city law."

New Mayor Mike McGinn has said he supports legalizing marijuana in
Washington, and state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, sponsored a
bill to legalize pot and sell it in state-run liquor stores to people 21
and older.

Her bill, along with one proposing marijuana possession be reduced from
a criminal to a civil offense, were voted down Wednesday by the House
Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

Meanwhile, new City Attorney Pete Holmes is making good on his campaign
promise to dismiss marijuana-possession cases including ones that were
already under way. He's taking action this week not to charge any
misdemeanor pot possession — which is less than 40 grams — said
spokeswoman Kathy Mulady.

Holmes didn't have a chance to thoroughly read Thursday's decision but
noted of the Fry ruling, "I might have made a different decision on
whether to prosecute this case at all."

Steve Trinen, an attorney in the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office,
argued the case before the Supreme Court and said he agreed with the
finding, but added the Legislature should clarify the law to better
protect legitimate patients.

For example, he said, lawmakers could set out procedures for getting
medical-marijuana authorization, "a large number of which appear to be
dubious at best," or based on very cursory examinations.

How the law shakes out in the rest of the state remains to be seen, but
Sarich said he hears every day about suffering patients whose homes are
constantly raided by police.

"This is the year that medical-marijuana patients are going to fight
back. We've hired attorneys and are going to start suing," Sarich said.

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