Washington Marijuana Dispensaries: Does Veto Mean Raids?


Photo: Steve Elliott
Bud room at The Healing Center Organization in Seattle

​Here in Washington state, in the Puget Sound area, I have seen a beautiful flowering of the cannabis subculture in the past 18 months.
It has been my privilege to be part of a moment that will almost inevitably be seen as something of a golden age in the medical marijuana scene in Seattle, when for a brief moment a vibrant, caring community felt its power and potential.
Since I became an authorized patient in 2007, I’ve seen the scene change from a handful of insular, exclusive (and often paranoid) collectives — none of which would take me as member, even with my legal authorization — to a plethora of dispensaries competing for my business.

Photo: Steve Elliott
The “medicine wheel” at the Center for Palliative Care (C.P.C.) in Seattle suburb Georgetown

​In fact, there are so many shops now, offering so many choices, that a couple of months ago, I started writing “Toke Signals,” a weekly marijuana dispensary review for local alternative paper the Seattle Weekly.

There are even two Cannabis Farmers’ Markets — in Seattle and neighboring Tacoma — that have offered patients convenient, one-stop destinations with a chance to buy from multiple cannabis cultivators.

It shouldn’t be surprising that prices have fallen and quality has risen in such a competitive environment. The flowering of Washington’s dispensary scene has empowered patients in a very positive way, putting them into the driver’s seat and enabling them to choose the dispensary and the medicine that serves them best.

But while Washington state’s medical marijuana dispensary boom has made safe access a reality for more patients than ever before over the past year, this golden age may soon be coming to an end, thanks to Governor Christine Gregoire.

In vetoing the most useful parts of a landmark medical marijuana bill last week, Gov. Gregoire gutted the legal theory under which at least 100 storefront dispensaries opened in the past 18 months, repots Jonathan Martin at The Seattle Times.

Photo: Steve Elliott
Medicine shelves at the G.A.M.E. Collective, North Seattle

​Dispensaries, which had been cautiously tolerated in some cities pending the outcome in the state capitol, Olympia, will find themselves at much greater risk of prosecution or civil action when the new law takes effect in July. 
Now, some dispensary owners are pooling money for legal defense, or making contingency plans should they best arrested. 
Others, such as Dennis Coughlin, president of nonprofit Cannabis Outreach Services in Lacey, are resigned that they’ll soon be forced to close.
“It’s inevitable,” Coughlin said. “At some point, in the near future, there’s going to be a concerted effort statewide” to close the pot shops.
The governor’s veto, widely seen as an act of political cowardice, effectively turned back the clock on medical marijuana in Washington, where it was first approved by voters in 1998.
“It wasn’t a step backward,” said John Grubb, a qualified patient and farmer who had been interested in becoming a licensed grower. “It was take-off running backward.”

Photo: Steve Elliott
Medicine from top-notch Seattle dispensary The Green Door

​Senate Bill 5073, which was sponsored by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, was written in response to requests from cities, police, patients and providers to clarify how authorized medical marijuana patients can get their medicine. The dispensary boom helped to force the issue.
But now, patients and advocates who had hoped for a regulated supply and distribution chain fear raids from both state and federal agents.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement is quite pleased with this outcome.
“I think the proponents [of marijuana]swung for the fences, and there was just too much stuff in the bill,” said a smug Don Pierce, executive director of the state police and sheriff’s association.
It appears unlikely that legislators will come up with anything else substantial after debating the issue for the past five months, even though Sen. Kohl-Welles has said she is working on a narrowly crafted new bill to restore a patient registry vetoed by Gov. Gregoire, and to decriminalize nonprofit patient collectives.
But Republicans in the Legislature seem uninterested in doing anything for medical marijuana patients.
“Passing legislation dealing with marijuana laws is not the priority for House Republicans,” sniffed House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt (R-Chehalis).
One possible bright spot is that Gregoire left one local-control provision in the law, giving pot-friendly cities a chance for more control in setting rules. The provision, allowing cities to regulate “licensed dispensaries,” may allow Seattle, with more than 30 shops already operating, to continue its role as a dispensary magnet.
“I really think it will be left to the discretion of local governments,” said Alison Holcomb, director of drug policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Meanwhile, if the Legislature doesn’t give a dispensary law another try, then existing shops are clearly at greater legal risk because the governor’s veto undercuts their best legal defense, which had relied on a vague definition of the patient-provider relationship that is now defined much more tightly.
“If I were in King County [home of Seattle], I wouldn’t panic, but you have to know you’re living with the ax over your head,” said Seattle defense attorney Jeffrey Steinborn.
Several other cities, including Tacoma, Federal Way, and Shoreline in the Puget Sound area, and Spokane in the eastern end of the state, are seen as likely to close down dispensaries in their city limits.

The governor’s veto “certainly galvanized most of the cities,” according to Seattle attorney Aaron Pelley, who represents dispensaries. “Before, they were willing to work with us. Now they say they won’t.”