Cities Shutter Dispensaries; Legislature Moves To Legalize Them

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Photo: Courtney Blethen Riffkin/The Seattle Times
Laura Healy, of Green Hope Patient Network in Shoreline, Washington, which lost its business license, said cities are in a bind: “They’re trying to force the Legislature to step up to the plate”

​​​Cities across Washington have moved to shut down a combined 35 medical marijuana dispensaries since February. The crackdown is occurring even as the Legislature is moving the legalize the cannabis collectives.

The crackdown is driven, at least in part, by a little-noticed memo from a municipal insurance risk pool, reports Jonathan Martin at the Seattle Times. The memo emphatically states that dispensaries are illegal and not entitled to business licenses, and that opinion has prompted Shoreline, Tacoma and other Seattle-area cities to action.

The Legislature appears ready to legalize and regulate dispensaries as part of a sweeping overhaul of the 1998 medical marijuana law approved by voters. The state Senate has passed the bill, SB 5073, and a House committee approved it Wednesday. It now will go before the full House for a vote, after which the Senate will vote on the House’s changes.
Cities across the region, though, aren’t waiting for the Legislature to act, and at least four of them have shut down a total of at least 35 dispensaries in the past six weeks. Three other cities have either passed or at least debated outright moratoriums on dispensaries.
Those actions are supposedly to rein in the “Green Rush” dispensary boom, which is operating in a legal gray area. Dozens of pot shops have come into the open since early 2010 to apply for business licenses and insurance. The state’s cannabis industry now even has a trade association and lobbying group, the Washington Cannabis Association.

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Photo: Rainier Valley Post
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says dispensaries operate in a gray area, but are necessary to help patients

​Not all localities are cracking down on dispensaries. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg on Thursday said he believes the shops operate in a “legal gray area” but are necessary to help patients.
He pointed to charges his office filed Thursday against three people for an armed takeover-style robbery at a West Seattle dispensary last Saturday as evidence that the shops need regulation, including security requirements.
The case “highlights the need for legislative policymakers to establish clear guidelines for the medical use of cannabis,” Satterberg said.
Meanwhile, in Shoreline, Green Hope Patient Network co-founder Laura Healy was empathetic with the city, even though Shoreline revoked Green Hope’s business license without warning last month. The license had been granted last November, and visits to Green Hope by the King County Sheriff’s Office and the fire marshal gave no indication of problems.
“I think the cities are just trying to protect themselves, since it’s such a gray area,” Healy said. “They’re trying to force the Legislature to step up to the plate.”
As marijuana dispensaries began pressing for business licenses last year, city officials asked insurer Washington Cities Insurance Authority if the shops are legal, and if they had to issue licenses.
In December, Mark Bucklin, general counsel for the risk pool, answered no to both questions.
Although dispensaries are incorporated as nonprofit collectives and say they are funded by donations, Bucklin claimed that dispensaries appear to be simply selling marijuana, making them illegal businesses and not deserving of a business license.
“If it walks, talks and quacks like a sale then it is a sale, regardless of how the applicant may try to characterize it,” Bucklin wrote in December.
In an interview with the Seattle Times, Bucklin said he doubted whether patients really needed medical marijuana. “I think we’re talking about convenience and ease of access for people with a hangnail,” he claimed.
In any event, Bucklin’s memo stirred cities to action. Tacoma, which had issued cease-and-desist letters to eight dispensaries last October, issued letters to 19 more shops last week. City spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said enforcement actions would likely be delayed pending the outcome of the dispensary bill in the Legislature.
“This is a tough issue,” McNair-Huff said. “There is a legitimate need. This is why we need to get clarity from the Legislature.”
Besides Shoreline, Lake Forest Park and Federal Way have also moved to close dispensaries that opened after being denied business licenses. The cities claim the shops are operating as illegal businesses.
“These municipalities are panicking and coming up with dumb answers,” said Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle attorney who represents dispensaries and patients. “These [dispensaries]are trying to help people get medicine.”
Earlier this week, the founders of one Federal Way nonprofit dispensary, Conscious Care Cooperative, appealed their license revocation to the city’s hearing examiner. The cooperative’s attorney, Aaron Pelley, said dispensaries give patients a third option other than growing their own marijuana or buying it illegally.
CCC was shut down for failing to get a building permit and for opening after the city denied its business license.
Pelley said the cooperative’s model is in accordance with the current law, which allows a designated provider to treat one patient at a time. “A decision to close this business is akin to setting off a bomb in the city,” and would drive patients to black market drug dealers, he said.
Meanwhile, the dispensary regulation and legalization bill, which would also provide arrest protection for authorized patients (something for which they’ve been hoping since 1998, when the original law was approved by voters), appears to be gaining support in the Legislature and is seen as likely to pass.
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