Washington state's greens and the gov: a partnership going up in smoke?

Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed a medical-marijuana bill, just the latest in a series of moves that distance her from progressives. What's the value of having a Democratic governor who acts like a Republican?

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Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed a medical-marijuana bill, just the latest in a series of moves that distance her from progressives. What's the value of having a Democratic governor who acts like a Republican?

Gov. Chris Gregoire is striking out with local green progressives lately, at least in Seattle. First, she seemingly characterized her own mandate for reducing vehicle miles traveled as "social engineering" in The New York Times. Then she managed to lose what should have been a slam-dunk court case to keep the tunnel project she supports off the ballot, setting up a campaign that will underline her split on the issue with much of the Democratic base.

And now efforts to clean up the mess created by her veto of another kind of green legislation, medical marijuana, have collapsed in the winding down of the legislature's special session.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles pulled her legislation to solve problems created by Gov. Gregoire’s recent veto of legislation intended to make accessing medical marijuana easier. According to Kohl-Welles' statement quoted on Publicola:

Governor Gregoire vetoed the most substantive parts of SB 5073 out of concern that state employees involved in regulating medical marijuana would be at risk of federal arrest and prosecution. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the situation for patients and their designated providers was exacerbated as a result.

What's ironic is that the question of whether or not marijuana should be legalized, or at least decriminalized, especially for people who benefit from it medically, has been answered by voters in Seattle and Washington more than once. But even though voters have deprioritized enforcement (Referendum 75 in Seattle) and supported access for patients who need medical marijuana (statewide Initiative 692)m the state and federal governments are enforcing their restrictive policies as if those things never happened. 

There is still a stigma attached to marijuana. And it’s not hard to understand why. The Stranger's Dominic Holden, who often writes about the issue of marijuana, pointed out last fall, "If you thought pot legalization in Seattle had already arrived — think again. Despite voters making pot possession the lowest law-enforcement priority in 2003, Seattle police are arresting more people on low-level marijuana charges this year than any year in the last decade."

Nevertheless, some businesses are braving the uncertain environment, working on how to meet the need both from the clinic and dispensary side. I talked to a couple of them for a story I wrote in partnership with the International Examiner last week about the impact of the governor's veto on the Asian community. A manager from the Northwest Green Medical Group told me that they see themselves as "pioneers" of a new health business. He says that businesses like his are trying to meet patient needs.

The manager, who requested to remain unnamed, pointed out that many patients hover in the gray area of legality. "We have professionals who worry they might lose their licensure if they get caught with marijuana," he says. His clinic is trying to destigmatize getting medical marijuana, making it more like a regular trip to the doctor's office.

Another advocate thinks that marijuana should be legalized, regulated, and taxed just like alcohol. David Tran says his dispensary, Conscious Care Cooperative, is not about recreational use but providing "qualified patients with high quality medicine in a safe environment." The co-operative is organized as a non-profit organization but Tran still looks at it like a business, needing more regulatory certainty to be successful.

People who need medical marijuana in Seattle and Washington state will have to weigh the hassle and humiliation of arrest against the pain they might be experiencing from the symptoms of their disease. Add that to challenges people already faces accessing affordable health care.

If, as Holden suggests, "marijuana will probably be decriminalized in Washington state within the next decade," who is going to meet the demand for medical marijuana? That will be up to people like David Tran.

"There are always risks involved in any business," says Tran, and "this is no different."

What makes the venture risky is "obscure legislation that leaves room for [differing] interpretation and leave it open to prosecution."

Business owners, providers, and users of medical marijuana share uncertainty about the law. Gregoire's veto took the issue a step backward at a time when government, business, law enforcement, and sick people are beginning to shift the social norms around marijuana.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's statement on the governor's veto perhaps says it best. The governor's actions, he said, "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."

It's probably too late for green progressives of any variety to salvage the Gregoire administration. But many issues, including medical marijuana, ought to serve as a cautionary tale for progressives in Seattle: Be careful about who you select for governor in 2012.

What’s worse, a Republican governor implementing Republican policies, or a Democratic governor who implements the same ones?


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