A Seattle police raid last week on a motorcycle accident victim and a medical marijuana activist has renewed the debate in the US on the issue.
They searched Martin Martinez's office after neighbors complained of a strong odor of pot in the building. They carted off pot and files, which included detailed medical histories and medical-marijuana prescriptions. They also broke down part of a wall in search of marijuana plants. They didn't find any.
"I'm just hopping mad," said Douglas Hiatt, Martinez's attorney, who arrived at the office during the search and called a deputy prosecutor to try to talk her out of executing the warrant. "It's stupid and was totally preventable."
"I'd like for them to give him his stuff back and compensate him for anything they broke," Hiatt said. "If they decide to go forward with this [and file charges], we're going to have a real fight."
But Mark Larson, the chief criminal deputy for the King County Prosecutor's Office, said an investigation is warranted to determine whether Martinez was operating within the bounds of the state law.
"We're certainly aware people have a right to use medical marijuana," Larson said. "But that doesn't include dispensing, and it doesn't include possessing unlimited quantities."
Subsequently, though, prosecutors told Martinez he won't face any charges and the investigation is now closed.
In a written statement, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said police "acted appropriately" and were right to seize items from Martinez because "they reasonably believed that they showed an effort to distribute marijuana in violation of state law."
But the statement also acknowledges that Martinez, who suffered severe neurological damage in a motorcycle accident in 1986, "is authorized to possess marijuana for medical purposes," and that the amount of pot seized by police was arguably within the 60-day supply limit the state medical-marijuana law provides.
Only police have so far refused to return about 12 ounces of marijuana and two bongs seized during Tuesday's bust.
Washington laws don't specify legal amounts or ways medical marijuana can be dispensed to others. The state Legislature last year ordered the Health Department to establish maximum amounts each patient may possess, but the department's proposals are still being debated.
"We'd love to have these issues clarified so that people who need it get it, and people who operate outside the rules risk prosecution," police said.
The business owner who complained about the smell said she didn't know until after Tuesday's bust that Martinez's office was being used by medical-marijuana patients.
The woman said she's highly allergic to marijuana and suffered headaches and dizziness. She said the smell was warding away some of her customers.
She said she suspected someone was growing pot in the three-story building, which houses a mix of businesses and apartments.
"It sucks they are sick and that they have to take medical marijuana — I wouldn't wish that on anyone," she said. "But it sucks that they're affecting an entire building."
Martinez said Wednesday that he had no idea the smell was so pervasive. "I'm really sorry. We didn't want to bother anyone. We're a very private group, which is why it doesn't say 'medical marijuana' on the door.
Martinez, 48, suffered severe neurological damage in a motorcycle accident in 1986. He later became one of the first people in King County to use medical necessity as a defense against prosecution for using marijuana.
In 1998, he helped promote the medical-marijuana initiative that voters approved overwhelmingly. It allows people with certain serious ailments to use marijuana if authorized by a physician.
For the past four years or so, he has operated Lifevine — a private collective of patients who work together to grow their own medical marijuana — and Cascadia NORML, a public-outreach organization that provides ID cards to medical-marijuana patients so they can show police that they have a legal right.
Attorney Hiatt is now exclusively a medical-marijuana lawyer. It is not a lucrative practice. His clients are often broke, and typically they are merely trying to be left alone. Hiatt says he has been paid in salmon, and once in an organic pig, writes Bruce Ramsey in Seattle Times.
Hiatt's clients are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Typically, they are on disability. Many have cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease or Crohn's disease.
AIDS patients are using marijuana to control nausea, so they don't vomit up the 40-odd pills they have to take every day.
Says Hiatt, "Their doctor puts them on OxyContin, morphine, one of the opiates. Their brain is in a fog because of the opiates. They're constipated. They're miserable. They say, 'I lost my life.' Then they try marijuana. It allows them to cut their opiate dose in half. Some of them eliminate it. They feel better. Their mind is clearer. They're not constipated anymore."
"I've heard that story five hundred times," Hiatt says. "Because it works."
Hiatt estimates there are 25,000 medical-marijuana patients in Washington. The state law says they can have a 60-day supply, but since 1998 it has been up to local officials to say what that is. The Department of Health will have a public hearing in Tumwater Aug. 25 on a new rule to allow patients 24 ounces of dried plant and six mature plants. And that's not enough, Hiatt insists.
"Every single medical marijuana patient I have is over these numbers," he says.