Good Question: What's Legal About Medical Marijuana

SPOKANE, Wash. - For some, it has become the issue of the day in Washington. The clash between state and federal laws and patients against federal agents is escalating, all relating to Washington's laws regarding medical marijuana. If you're confused about what's legal and what's not, you're not alone. The issue is incredibly complicated.

Last month, the issue hit close to home for patients who rely on medical marijuana to treat a variety of illnesses. They came out with signs and slogans to protest federal raids on several Spokane marijuana dispensaries. They're frustrated, because they say shutting down the dispensaries cuts off their supply of the drug.

"Dispensaries are the only place people can get it," said patient David Van Scyoc. "We're talking about the elderly, people with AIDS, cancer."

What the feds were doing that day is enforcing federal law, the law that outlaws the possession of marijuana by anyone for any reason. The feds say that law trumps state law which permits medical marijuana. But, those state laws are confusing on their own. Just because Washington permits it doesn't mean having it is actually legal.

Washington authorizes medical marijuana for patients with "qualifying terminal or debilitating illnesses." Those illnesses include chemo-related nausea, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. Washington law only "provides an affirmative defense for qualified patients and designated caregivers." That means patients can use the "medical marijuana defense" if they're arrested or charged with a crime. It does not prevent patients from being arrested or charged in the first place.

Doctors can't write prescriptions for medical marijuana and you can't get it at a pharmacy. There's no actual card, per se, you just need a written recommendation from a doctor. The state does not track who has one or why. State law says buying it - from anyone - is illegal, which makes the dispensaries illegal. Patients and qualified caregivers can grow it themselves, but only a 60-day personal supply. In many cases, a recommendation from a doctor in Washington won't protect you from prosecution in other states.

Confused? So are a lot of people. But, unless the state legalizes the sale of marijuana, the dispensaries will be breaking the law if they operate. And, patients will continue to be frustrated by a law that allows them to use the drug, but doesn't exactly clear them to possess it.