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Gone to Pot 

Sitting in his office on Monday morning, John Grasso suddenly heard his name hollered over a megaphone outside his window. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

Three stories down, right across the street from the Spokane County Courthouse, scores of people milled about holding brightly colored signs. For the third time in the last few days, they had gathered in support of medical marijuana dispensaries. And, they declared, Grasso wants people to die.

Grasso, Spokane County’s deputy prosecutor, doesn’t like all the attention. He says he didn’t order any raid on Change, the medical marijuana dispensary on Northwest Boulevard that was closed down last week, its owners jailed and pot seized — providing the spark for all the protests. He didn’t threaten the other dispensaries in town, cowing them into locking their doors (that was the cops and the grapevine). He doesn’t have some grand scheme to take this all the way to the state Supreme Court in order to shut down the burgeoning support system for medical marijuana patients. And he doesn’t want people to die. He just wants the law clarified.

“It’s absolutely awful,” Grasso says of chapter 69.51A of the revised code of Washington — the law regulating medical marijuana. As he sees it, the main fault in the law deals with how doctors recommend the use of pot as medicine: “Dr. Feelgood… blows into town, advertises in the Nickel Nik and says bring $200 in cash [for a recommendation]. … It’s a mess. Just a mess.”

Down below, on the sidewalk with some 75 other advocates, Jacey Hoag has a different opinion.

“It’s perfectly clear,” says Hoag, the leader of a small, loose-knit group of dispensaries in Spokane who also owns the Wellness Medicine Collective. Hoag points out that the law says he can provide marijuana to “only one patient at any one time.” So he uses a time clock to check authorized patients in and out when he’s selling them marijuana. “It’s about how much time you spend providing for a patient.”

Grasso and Hoag disagree on much, but both are heading toward the same goal: taking the issue to the courts to settle this thing once and for all.

In 1998, when voters passed Initiative 692 by a two-to-one margin, they didn’t offer much in the way of specifics. The initiative allowed for a 60-day supply of pot, whatever that meant. And it said the drug could be used for certain types of pain, but the list of diseases wasn’t what one could call exhaustive.

Almost 11 years later, authorities have tried to iron some of this out. Sixty days, says the state Department of Health, means 15 plants and 24 ounces of dried pot. (Though even these numbers are a bit, well, hazy. They are “presumptive,” or in other words, authorities’ best guess of what 60 days of pot looks like.) As for bad diseases, they named HIV, Crohn’s, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Hepatitis C — things like that. But then they also threw in “intractable pain.” So state authorities ironed it out, but left a lot of wrinkles.

That’s where Spokane comes in. With the raid on Change, Washington had its first medical marijuana dispensary shut down by cops. Charges will likely be filed, and the case ultimately will, many predict, land at the feet of the state’s Supreme Court justices.

“They’re going to try and duck this,” Grasso says, predicting the courts might attempt to lob it to the Legislature for clarity, and the Legislature might shrug and say it’s up to the courts to decide. “Nobody wants to touch this.”

Nobody, apparently, but people in Spokane, who are all raring to go to court.

John Clark, who is representing pro bono many of the dispensaries in the area that might be pulled into this legal tussle, says he’s ready. “We need the Legislature or the courts to clarify the law. Rather than try to thwart the will of the voters, we need to find a way to flesh it out and provide for some sort of dispensary system.” [email protected]

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