New Medical Marijuana Guidelines for Law Enforcement.

On July 15th, 2008 Seattle Police responded to a complaint from a tenant in the University District who said she was sickened by the smell of marijuana coming from another section of the building.  Martin Martinez allowed officers to inspect his small office, knowing that he and the group of marijuana patients known as Lifevine were in compliance with Washington State law.  

Unfortunately, officers were not as well informed on the statute as they should have been, and because the raid occurred after 5 PM, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg was not available to provide guidance. Seattle Police seized 12 ounces of medical marijuana and the contents of file cabinets including private health records of five hundred medical marijuana patients.  Satterberg directed Seattle Police to return the files and the medicine immediately.  However, during that legal process, Seattle Police lost possession of the marijuana when DEA agents intervened, seizing the 12 ounces held by SPD and later destroying it.  While some pressed Martinez to bring a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, the long-time veteran of local pot politics relied on a less aggressive approach. 

In 2007, the WA State Legislature had passed an update to the original medical marijuana law that included the following directive to police: “If a law enforcement officer determines that marijuana is being possessed lawfully under the medical marijuana law, the officer may document the amount of marijuana, take a representative sample that is large enough to test, but not seize the marijuana.”  Yet, in every case recorded in more than a year that had elapsed since Governor Gregoire signed the law, police agencies had not followed that section of the law. However, the situation in Seattle has now changed, largely due to massive public interest generated by the raid on Lifevine.  

Two weeks after the 12 ounces of medical cannabis were destroyed by DEA, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Top Cop of Washington’s most populated county, issued new guidelines to law enforcement agencies for the investigation of marijuana patients.  For the first time ever, local marijuana patients have a good reason to breathe a little easier: King County’s most powerful legal authority has prohibited the destructive seizure of property many have faced since WA passed The Medical Use of Marijuana Act of 1998. In a two-page memorandum to all law enforcement agencies, Satterberg wrote: “Because there is no way to simply know, without investigation, if a person (or group of persons) is in compliance with the affirmative defense, we support law enforcement’s reasonable efforts to carefully and sensitively investigate these cases.  Failure to do so would be contrary to the law as currently written, and unfair to those who are in compliance with the law.  As these investigations proceed, we must remember that the affirmative defense remains largely undefined, making successful prosecutions challenging at best.” 

Satterberg’s standards for filing charges against people who claim to possess marijuana for medical purposes are outlined below.  Investigating officers must answer the following questions prior to submitting cases for review:

  1. Has the suspect been diagnosed by a physician with a qualifying condition covered by the law? 
  2. Has the suspect provided proof of a valid recommendation by a licensed physician? 
  3. If the suspect is under 18 years of age, has a parent or guardian controlled the use of medical cannabis as specified by law? 
  4. If the suspect is a designated provider, has that person met all of those legal requirements, including providing for only one patient at a time and strict abstinence from personal use of the cannabis in possession?  (Designated providers must not consume the medicine they produce for a patient.)
  5. Is the amount observed within the limits specified by WA Department of Health Rules that define the 60-Day Supply clause?  (DOH limits set in October 2008 call for no more than 15 live plants and 24 dried ounces per patient.)
  6. Is there any evidence that the suspect is engaged in sales or delivery of marijuana to non-medical users?  (Diversion of marijuana to non-medical users is a felony and can disqualify the medical defense.)
  7. Has the suspect displayed marijuana in public?  (Public display is specifically prohibited under the statute.)
  8. Has the suspect used medical cannabis in a motor vehicle in a way that could be construed as unsafe to the general public?  (Also prohibited under the statute.)

Dan Satterberg clearly upholds the statutes listed under RCW: 69.51A, and goes further to offer broad guidelines to protect marijuana patients from unwarranted arrest and seizure.  Looking back on a long history of negotiations between Dan Satterberg and numerous marijuana patients with legal problems, we can be certain these new guidelines shall ultimately relieve the stress felt by thousands of severely ill people.  After a decade of uncertainty, marijuana patients now have justice on their side in the greater Seattle area of King County, Washington. 

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg may be reached at: 206-296-9000.

Top Cop Wants Regulation, Not Raids! - a letter to Sen. Kohl-Welles, 5/2011

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