With hundreds of cannabis supporters in attendance, the Tacoma City Council on Tuesday night agreed to a compromise plan that would allow established medical marijuana dispensaries to continue selling to patients until the Washington Legislature spells out more clearly how patients can legally access the herb.
The issue arose, Trueblood claimed, when her office investigated “traffic and odor complaints” against five of the Tacoma dispensaries.
“They need to stop their dispensing to multiple people,” complained Trueblood, whose office sent cease and desist notices to the eight affected businesses on Friday.
The notices specifically cited part of Washington state’s medical marijuana law, saying that designated providers are allowed to serve “only one patient at a time.”
“In light of the above information, you are not to engage in this activity in the City of Tacoma effective October 24, 2010,” the letter read, adding that failure to comply would subject each dispensary to revocation of business license and potential civil and criminal penalties.
But Friday’s cease and desist letters, which came with the subject line “Notice to Cease Dispensing Marijuana,” seemed to come as a surprise to the City Council.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Councilman Marty Campbell said. The Council had already said it intended to ask the Legislature to clarify gray areas of the medical marijuana law that have become frustrating for patients and law enforcement throughout Washington state.
Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano apologized to Council members Tuesday for the letters being sent without staff first consulting the Council.
The letters also came as a shock to the dispensaries and cooperatives that have sprung up in Tacoma over the past year or so, according to Philip Dawdy, vice chair of marijuana advocacy group Sensible Washington
The city agreed to suspend taking any action toward shutting down the eight dispensaries openly operating there, as long as each of the shops file an appeals to the cease and desist letters.
Tacoma will delay setting hearings on those appeals until the end of the 2011 state legislative session, during which lawmakers are expected to clarify portions of the medical marijuana law after citizens approved a 1998 ballot measure.
“We’re just starting to hear details about (the plan) now,” Dawdy said. “It’s mildly encouraging — but the city should just drop the whole thing.”
Even with the city’s commitment to suspend the dispensary crackdown, “There’s still latitude there for law enforcement abuses,” Dawdy said.
“The way the current law is written is confusing,” Mayor Strickland said, noting that the council recently adopted language in the city’s legislative policy manual that encourages the state to clarify the law.
Strickland said she met with Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell and others to discuss the compromise after medical marijuana advocates from across the state said Monday they would converge on Tacoma City Hall Tuesday night to protest the cease and desist letters sent to local dispensaries.
|Photo: Senate Democrats
|State Sen. Debbie Regala: “The citizens have said this should be legal in our state”
At least two state legislators, Sen. Debbie Regala (D-Tacoma) and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), are expected to take up the dispensary issue in the 2011 legislative session.
Law enforcement and patient advocates both want clear-cut rules, even if they don’t agree on what the rules should be or who should oversee them, according to Regala.
“Many of the people caught up in the confusion are patients in legitimate need of medicine to ease their pain,” Regala said. “The citizens have said this should be legal in our state. I’m going to be optimistic that we’re going to be able to do this.”
“A lot of legislators are worried about voting on anything involving marijuana,” Kohl-Welles said. “There’s not a cohesive community of activists.”
“I run a legal business,” said Emiel Kandi, director of COBRA Medical Group, one of the dispensaries the city threatened to shut down.
“I knew at some point this would be a huge political fight,” Kandi said. “The Legislature wrote a bad law. I’m a creative guy, and I drove a truck through it. But I haven’t broken the law.”
The 800 patients he serves would have a hard time getting their medicine if the city banned businesses like his from operating, according to Kandi, who opened COBRA in July.
A growing number of patient cooperatives and small dispensaries have cropped up in Western Washington over the past couple years, supplying marijuana to authorized patients by having the patients designate them as “caregiver” for the time it takes to transfer the cannabis and collect a donation to defray expenses.
The question of whether caregivers can supply only one person at a time in succession has created confusion for law enforcement and patients.
In King County, home of Seattle, some co-ops match up patients who grow their own cannabis with patients who don’t or can’t grow. They’ve been largely left alone to serve patients.