SEATTLE -- Patients using marijuana for ailments such as chronic back pain and cancer are allowed by Washington state law to possess a two-month supply of the drug. But medical marijuana doesn't come with a standard dose or even a standard method of taking the drug.
The 1998 law has never spelled out how much usable pot, or how many plants, make up a 60-day supply. Now the state Legislature has demanded an answer to the question by July, and the state is holding hearings to ask experts and citizens for their opinions on how to determine a two-month supply.
"There is so much you will have to take into account," says Joanna McKee, founder of Seattle's Green Cross Patient Co-op. "What about people who eat it? How different is the amount they need from people who smoke it?"
McKee was one of many who spoke at a state health department public meeting this month in Seattle. More than 100 people attended, and about 45 people spoke. Another meeting in Spokane drew similar numbers. Most people were clearly medical marijuana advocates.
The issue is crucial for patients who use medical marijuana.
"What has ended up happening is that in each county, law enforcement effectively decides what constitutes a 60-day supply," says attorney Alison Holcomb, Marijuana Education Project director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And in some counties, that amount has been set at zero."
Of the 12 states that protect medical marijuana patients from state prosecution, Washington is the only one without clear guidelines on the amount a patient or designated caregiver is allowed to possess. Those amounts are different in almost every other state. Oregon allows the largest supply - 24 ounces or six mature plants - while several states allow patients to have only one ounce of usable marijuana on hand. In California, state law sets a limit of 8 ounces or six mature plants, but cities and counties are free to establish higher guidelines.
Dr. Gregory T. Carter, a professor of rehabilitative medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies the effects of marijuana in treating patients with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, says that these codified limits might be too low.
"There are so many variables here. Even if you just look at smokers, you have to look not only at the quality of the pot but also at the efficiency of the smoker," he says. "Some people are better smokers than others."
Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, welcomes the change in the law. "It doesn't make sense for a judge or prosecutor to have to determine how much a sick person needs - that's a medical decision, and I've always felt it should be made by a doctor."
Lynn Marshall writes for the Los Angeles Times.