TACOMA, Wash. -- Just as medical marijuana commerce was beginning to flourish openly in Tacoma, a Washington State Supreme Court decision sent many patients running for cover.
"People are scared," said Mike Allison, a principal behind North End Club 420, one of three new Tacoma exchanges for medical marijuana patients. "And that's too bad because they're sick and they need this medicine."
The stack of the marijuana-growing equipment at Club 420 headquarters appears to bear out his impression.
Lights, fans and carbon-exhaust filters are piled in cardboard boxes on the carpet in a rear office -- all of it, club members say, donated or sold at low cost to the exchange by patients worried about getting busted.
"The whole idea that police can get the faintest whiff of cannabis coming out of your house and come in with guns drawn has freaked people out," Allison said. "People are calling us, saying, 'Come and get this stuff out of here. I don't want to take the risk'."
In the Washington v Fry court decision, released Jan. 21, the state Supreme Court knocked at least a couple of bricks out of the legal foundation relied on by those who use marijuana as medicine.
Standing on your porch and waving a note from your doctor doesn't necessarily mean the cops can't search your home and arrest you, the court said. And if your medical authorization is flawed in some way, the court continued, you might not be able to use the medical marijuana law as a defense at trial.
The court's interpretation of the law only makes sense, say those in law enforcement who must distinguish legitimate medical marijuana patients from dealers and recreational users.
Without a search, how can officers tell whether a person is growing more than the maximum allowed by law? If a physician's authorization for medical use doesn't meet the standards of the law, why should it constitute a defense in front of a jury?
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist said he doesn't think the impact of the Fry case will be as great as medical marijuana users fear.
"Our philosophy remains unchanged," Lindquist said. His office will look at things on a case-by-case basis. "We're not interested in prosecuting legitimate medical marijuana users. But we are going to prosecute bogus medical marijuana users."
Washington's medical marijuana law, which voters approved in a 1998 initiative, was never clear to begin with.
The law made it OK for people with certain "debilitating or terminal illnesses" to have a limited amount of marijuana for medical use, but left it unclear how they were supposed to get it. Buying and selling marijuana stayed illegal.
Authorized patients are allowed to tend their own marijuana plants, but there is no legal source for seeds or seedlings.
Also, the state law conflicts with federal law. The federal government doesn't recognize the medical use of marijuana.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that the Justice Department will not raid medical marijuana exchanges that are legal under state law. But all marijuana possession remains illegal under federal law.
As a result, local law enforcement agencies and medical marijuana users are engaged in a careful dance, with users grasping at admittedly flimsy interpretations of the state law to justify commerce in the drug and, in most jurisdictions, cops and prosecutors pretending not to notice.
"The reality is, we have bigger problems in Pierce County that we're focusing on," Lindquist said. "Marijuana is extremely low on our radar screen."
In 2009, Lindquist said, his office filed charges in about 1,600 drug cases, most involving methamphetamine. Only 79 were marijuana-grow operations, he said.
Public evidence of Tacoma's clandestine medical marijuana trade has been growing steadily. In the past two months, three marijuana exchanges opened outlets in various parts of the city.
On a quiet alley near Wright Park, the Tacoma Hemp Co. operates a brisk patient exchange out of an unmarked building fronted with a steel gate and a buzzer. Push the buzzer, and an attendant emerges and asks for medical authorization and identification.
Once inside, patients sign a form appointing Tacoma Hemp as "my agent for the sole purpose of procuring substances which I may order for personal medical use."
North End Club 420 went online with an elaborate Web site on Dec. 1 and two weeks ago rented office space near the 38th Street bridge over Interstate 5 to use not only as a marijuana exchange but also as a social center and space for classes on marijuana law and cannabis cultivation. So far, 132 people have registered as members.
For legal justification, most medical marijuana networks work their way through the same narrow loophole in the law.
Recognizing that some patients might be too sick to grow their own marijuana, the law allows eligible patients to appoint a "designated provider" who can grow pot for them.
The law stipulates the designated person can be the provider for only one patient at a time. But it doesn't say how long that "time" must last.
Organizations such as Tacoma Hemp and Green Buddha have clients sign legal documents appointing them as agents but only for as long as it takes them to hand over the marijuana.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)