OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee have filed a petition with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration asking the agency to reclassify marijuana so doctors can prescribe it and pharmacists can fill the prescription.
The governors said Wednesday they want the federal government to list marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug, allowing it to be used for medical treatment. Marijuana is currently classified a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it's not accepted for medical treatment and can't be prescribed, administered or dispensed.
Washington and Rhode Island are two of 16 states, and the District of Columbia, that have laws allowing the medical use of marijuana.
"Each of these jurisdictions is struggling with managing safe access to medical cannabis for patients with serious medical conditions," the 99-page petition and report reads. "Our work with the federal agencies has not resolved the matter."
Gregoire said that the conflict between state and federal laws means legitimate patients lack a regulated and safe system to obtain marijuana.
"It is time to show compassion and time to show common sense," she said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
Washington voters approved a medical marijuana law in 1998 that gives doctors the right to recommend -- but not prescribe -- marijuana for people suffering from cancer and other conditions that cause "intractable pain."
Earlier this year, Gregoire vetoed most of a bill that made major reforms to the state's medical marijuana law, saying state workers could be prosecuted under federal law the way the measure was written.
The legislation was passed to set clearer regulations on medical marijuana use and to establish a licensing system and patient registry to protect qualifying patients, doctors and providers from criminal liability. Gregoire vetoed provisions of the bill that would have licensed and regulated medical marijuana dispensaries and producers. She also nixed a provision for a patient registry under the Department of Health.
"There's chaos and conflict between what the states are doing and what the Justice Department is threatening to do," said Chafee, who was on Wednesday's conference call with Gregoire.
A DEA spokeswoman said officials at the agency had heard of the petition but could not comment.
Earlier this month, the DEA raided 10 storefront dispensaries in Washington state, including several in Seattle, where law enforcement officials have taken a lenient view of medical marijuana grows and dispensaries. Search warrant affidavits suggested the shops were fronts for illicit drug dealing and revealed that agents were looking for evidence of drug conspiracies, money laundering and guns. Similar raids occurred in Montana and California as well.
Morgan Fox of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project said the petition was a "good first step" but reclassifying the drug will not "change the federal penalties for possessing, cultivating or distributing medical marijuana."
"That is the change we really need," Fox wrote in a news release. "These governors should be insisting that the federal government allow them to run their medical marijuana operations the ways they see fit, which in these cases includes allowing regulated distribution centers to provide patients with safe access to their medicine and not force them to turn to illicit dealers."
The DEA has rejected prior petitions seeking to reclassify marijuana, but Gregoire noted that this is the first petition signed by governors.
Gregoire also said the science on the issue has changed. The American Medical Association reversed its position two years ago and now supports investigation and clinical research of cannabis for medicinal use.
Gregoire said she was on a phone call in August with other governors in medical marijuana states and said that there was a "huge volume" of interest.
Asked why no other governors have signed onto the initial petition, Gregoire said she and Chafee wanted to take the lead on the initiative.
"I have every expectation that you will see other governors join us," she said.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin plans to sign the petition and write a letter in support of the proposed change, said spokeswoman Susan Allen. Gil Duran, a spokesman for California Gov. Jerry Brown, did not have an immediate comment when asked about the petition Wednesday. Other governors did not immediately respond to requests from The Associated Press.
"The governors in Washington and Rhode Island raise a valid conflict that needs to be resolved," said Eric Brown, a spokesman for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. "Colorado law requires we make a similar ask of the federal government by Jan. 1. We will do that. We will also continue to consult with other governors on this issue and with Colorado's attorney general before deciding whether anything else will be done."
There is currently an effort in Washington state to decriminalize and tax recreational marijuana sales for adults. Initiative 502, which has been endorsed by two former Seattle U.S. attorneys and the former head of the FBI in Washington state, would create a system of state-licensed growers, processors and stores, and would impose a 25 percent excise tax at each stage. Adults 21 and over could buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana; one pound of marijuana-infused product in solid form, such as brownies; or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids. It would be illegal to drive with more than 5 nanograms of THC, the active ingredient of cannabis, per milliliter of blood.
Sponsors need to collect more than 240,000 valid signatures by Dec. 30 to place the measure before the Legislature early next year. If the Legislature doesn't take up the issue, it automatically goes to the November ballot.
When asked about the initiative, Gregoire said her focus was on medical marijuana, and how to "get relief that is safe and readily available to these patients."