Washington's Legislature is considering a registry of approved medical-marijuana users as part of a sweeping overhaul package pending in Olympia.

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PORTLAND — To enter “The Happiest Place on Earth,” you descend beneath a southeast Portland strip mall, down a stairway ripe with marijuana smoke.

At the door at the bottom, you flash a small plastic card that certifies the holder as a member of Oregon’s medical-marijuana patient registry. Behind the door is the nation’s first open Cannabis Cafe, affectionately known as a very “happy” place.

There is no such card or registry in Washington, but the Legislature is considering following Oregon’s lead as part of a sweeping overhaul package pending in Olympia.

Patients in Washington are anxious about the proposed registry, seeing it as an invasion of privacy and a tempting tool for police, who strongly favor it. Reflecting those fears, the current proposal calls for a voluntary registry.

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But Oregon’s 11-year experience with a mandatory registry is telling. A consensus of patient advocates, police, attorneys and health-care professionals describe it as a the least controversial part of the Oregon law.

“I’ve been preaching this to my colleagues in Washington: A registry can protect you,” said Madeline Martinez, executive director of Oregon NORML, which owns the Cannabis Cafe. “Every state should have one.”

In Oregon, a patient whose doctor recommends medical marijuana must enroll and pay the $100 yearly registry fee to gain protection from arrest or unwarranted searches of a grow site.

Membership has almost doubled from 23,114 in 2008 to 41,407 in 2010. Nearly a quarter of Oregon’s doctors have a patient on the registry.

Lt. Ted Phillips of the Oregon State Patrol’s narcotics section said the registry is helpful because it allows police to quickly tell if a medical-marijuana patient is legitimate. Police can access the registry via a secure data link only to confirm a patient’s qualification, not to fish for names.

Although the registry is growing, it is not without controversy. The Oregon Supreme Court is considering a case involving a firefighter whose gun permit was declined after local law enforcement found his name on the registry.

The firefighter’s attorney, Brian Michaels, of Eugene, said his client’s case was a rare questionable use of the registry. “It is undeniably helpful. There’s tens of thousands who use medical marijuana legally, and a few hundred who are harassed by police,” he said.

In 2007, a federal grand jury issued a subpoena for records of patients enrolled on the Oregon registry, as well as for records from a private clinic that authorized medical marijuana for patients in Washington.

After Oregon’s attorney general fought the subpoena, Judge Robert Whalley of Spokane denied the request, finding the patients’ privacy rights trumped those of investigators.

Alison Holcomb of the ACLU of Washington, which also fought the subpoena, said she supports a voluntary registry. She cited a recent case in which police knocked down a medical-marijuana patient’s door in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood before officers realized he could legally grow.

If Washington had a registry, police could have simply checked to see if he was enrolled, she said.

“People who suffer from permanent and debilitating medical conditions shouldn’t have to live in fear,” she said.

Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia allow use of medical marijuana. Washington is the only one without any kind of registry, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that tracks state laws.

Instead, patients here carry paperwork signed by the medical professional who recommended marijuana for their qualifying condition.

Philip Dawdy, spokesman for the Washington Cannabis Association, said Oregon’s experience allays some concern, but patients here are split on the value of a registry, even a voluntary one.

“There’s a lot of fear among patients — and it’s well-placed concern — about how this info will be used against them,” he said.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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