By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The need for a state law to regulate medical-marijuana dispensaries is “a public safety issue, not a civil-liberties issue.”
That’s what Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes told WSB this afternoon, as we sought a followup conversation regarding three recent events: First, the Delridge Neighborhoods District Council discussed dispensaries last week, after a fleeting report that one might move into a Delridge Way storefront; then, a West Seattle dispensary was targeted by armed robbers last Saturday night; and third, a committee chaired by West Seattle State Rep. Eileen Cody is considering the bill, SB 5073, that would create the regulation Seattle and other city leaders are hoping for. (The online legislative record doesn’t reflect this so far, but Holmes said his understanding was that the committee voted narrowly in favor of the bill today, with amendments he was waiting to hear about.)
We contacted Holmes because a policy expert from his office, John Schochet, had spoken at last week’s district-council meeting, declaring that dispensaries are “technically not legal” and saying that if the state doesn’t take action, Seattle will have to do something.
What would that something be? we asked Holmes today. The only thing he could be clear on is that inaction wouldn’t be an option – though it’s what’s being (not) done right now.
“We need to do something. Right now these are felony operations,” Holmes said, and “allowing them to continue proliferating” – he estimates there are 30 in Seattle – is not in anyone’s best interest.
Yet moving to shut them all down isn’t in anyone’s best interest either, he contends, since that would take a massive amount of law-enforcement time and jail space.
As written here and elsewhere previously, the “quandary,” as Holmes puts it, is that Washington voters gave their blessing to medical marijuana in 1998, without any mechanism being set up for dispensaries to provide it.
Suddenly, since last summer, dispensaries started opening. West Seattle has two operating openly, with city business licenses (though there is no specific category for medical marijuana), G.A.M.E. Collective between Alaska and Morgan Junctions, and Pharmaseed on Alki. A few weeks ago, the North Delridge neighborhood mailing list exploded with intense discussion of potential issues raised by dispensaries after a report that a mid-Delridge property owner was going to lease a renovated commercial space to one. (Southwest Precinct police subsequently told WSB they had received word the property owner was reconsidering.)
Police have been involved in “monitoring” dispensaries around the city, Holmes told WSB today: “Most have been visited by police” to be sure they have proper credentials for dispensing marijuana to patients with bonafide prescriptions.
As Southwest Precinct Lt. Pierre Davis explained at last week’s Delridge District Council meeting, it’s more a case of watching for any “issues” that erupt in or around the dispensaries – as would be done with any other business.
One of those “issues” occurred three nights after the council meeting. Saturday night at G.A.M.E. Collective, court documents say, a man and two teenage boys held up the dispensary and fled with money and marijuana, but were chased by robbery victims who managed to untie themselves). We covered the incident after a reader tip that something was happening in the area; police confirmed the robbery later.
Holmes says crimes like that are a concern that will “multiply” if dispensaries keep opening unregulated.
But not everyone is as worried. At last week’s Delridge meeting, someone asked, “Why would a (dispensary) be any more at risk than another business,” like, oh, say Pearls coffee/tea shop?.
“No one’s going to break into Pearls to steal coffee,” someone else retorted. That was about the most “heated” the Delridge discussion got – council chair Mat McBride went to great lengths to keep reminding people they weren’t there to argue or speculate. He lauded the fact it had come up at all: “This is a significant topic for the community, and it’s got a lot of people fired up – that’s great, that’s wonderful, involvement leads to action, action leads to change, that’s what we are all about.”
During that meeting, city attorney rep Schochter said, “Right now some (dispensaries) work great with their communities, others we get complaints about. … The clearer a state law we can get, the more we can devote to separating the good dispensaries from the bad.” In case the city does have to draw up its own regulations, he continued, “We are open and actively seeking input on what kinds of things neighbors would like to see, so we can work on a Seattle approach to regulating and licensing.”
Flash forward, getting back to our conversation today with his boss, Holmes. He wants to make it clear that the dispensary discussion is separate from the overall marijuana-legalization discussion; he thinks the latter will eventually happen, but for now, another legalization bill just died in the Legislature (though a petition drive is under way – here’s the West Seattle Facebook page for the campaign). What cities like Seattle are facing right now is the growth of unregulated dispensaries, and state legislation can help them deal with the situation, according to Holmes, who lauded State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles repeatedly during our conversation, for putting forth the bill.
“It’s a real Civics 101 lesson,” in Holmes’s view, since this is an issue that’s being dealt with in many places. And it’s also a matter of different levels of government interacting – since marijuana is currently illegal under federal law, no matter why you’re using it, yet U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has made a provision for not enforcing if there is a clear state law about it. Which, for marijuana dispensaries in our state, there is not.
If SB 5073 doesn’t win approval this session, Holmes says, he and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg would have to decide, “are we going to prosecute?” That in turn would likely involve their respective councils, and if the decision led these jurisdictions to come up with their own regulations, one question would be, “Will it be a model like San Francisco, some combination of zoning and licensing?”
But none of that will be decided until the Legislature settles the fate of the bill (for which Holmes, Mayor Mike McGinn and the entire City Council lobbied in a letter sent earlier this month. We’ll follow up.