Regulating medical-marijuana dispensaries ‘public-safety issue,’ says city attorney

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.

14 Replies to "Regulating medical-marijuana dispensaries 'public-safety issue,' says city attorney"

  • Human March 23, 2011 (4:56 pm)

    Legalize and tax. Everyone in their 20’s smokes weed anyways. We think of it like beer. Its less dangerous and gives people a good perspective to work though life from. I would not be the person I am today had I not smoked marijuana. I haven’t smoked on 5 years and granted, they’ve been my most productive. Yet I miss the ability to elevate beyond the man made world, beyond the typical. I feel like weed gave me the ideas and ideals I needed to find my roots, then stopping smoking gave me the initiative to pursue my ideals.
    What are these ideals?: Divestment from the stock market, local entrepreneurship, community education, etc. Without the assistance of weed, my perspective may have been limited to spoonfed daily life. Maybe that’s why it’s illegal; it gives us the insights beyond control.

  • Wild One March 23, 2011 (6:41 pm)

    Thank you Human. I agree with you as a fellow human.
    Well I have to say it has done more good than bad for the people in my life. I gave it up a long time ago.
    It can most certainly be abused. But so can anything including many of the current mentally and physiologically altering substances that are legal, readily available and even advertised to death in our society. Coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, and the MYRIAD of PRESCRIPTION DRUGS that most of which we do not fully understand the long term effects of.. It is a given to say that marijuana is a relatively safe drug. It will always be abused by some people. But so will anything regardless of it’s legality.
    Legalize it and tax it. It is so amazing that we still have not figured this one out.

  • Genesee Hill March 23, 2011 (6:52 pm)

    I agree. Somewhat. Abused causes me problems. Maybe some people use it more frequently than others. So what? Not my business. And that goes for darn near any drug. I believe the prohibition of drugs, just like alcohol in the 20s, causes most of the problems for society. Please remember, prior to the early 20th century, virtually all drugs were legal.

    Somehow, my grandparents made it through the era where you could buy morphine and a hypodermic kit from Sears, Roebuck, and Co.via mail order.

  • regulator March 23, 2011 (6:59 pm)

    Legalize and tax, until then lets grow our own grass.

  • lenguamor March 23, 2011 (8:02 pm)

    I’ll tell you what is the real public-safety issue: REGULATING PEOPLE WHO COMMIT CRIMES.
    Stop letting career criminals out on bail, and keep them in longer when they are convicted, and you’ll find that the issue’s effect on us is greatly alleviated.
    Good luck with that in a society that still, today, conducts a “war on drugs” and talks all the time about controlling guns instead of controlling criminals though, huh?

  • (required) March 23, 2011 (10:54 pm)

    Drugs are just a dumb, bad choice — including pot. Yeah, I get it: alcohol’s worse, pot doesn’t do much, yadda yadda yadda. But I just think it takes bad judgment to take drugs. Drugs just waste your precious limited time in this way too short life. That said, I wish people would just be candid about these dispensaries. Truth be told, dispensaries are just one way pro-legalization people are now using to try to push their pro-legalization agenda. They are using dispensaries to push the envelope toward their ultimate goal: legalization of pot, if not all drugs. For now, a lot of non-pot smoking people who aren’t comfortable with legalization seem willing to tolerate these dispensaries. Why? Is it that we see the press showing lots of really sick people with really serious ailments? Is it the lousy economy? Sympathy for cancer patients looking for one last high before they die? I don’t know …. but come on. Dispensaries are no different than Grateful Dead parking lots were — an experiment in society with a lot of people largely focused on getting high. Medicinal? Yeah, right.

  • Jacob March 23, 2011 (10:57 pm)

    Grass has been good to me. In my perfect little world it would be legal for all adults to partake in, and free of any sin taxes. Until that happens, I hope SB 5073 passes so more people in need have safe access to it.

  • austin March 24, 2011 (9:11 am)

    In my perfect little world there wouldn’t be people like “(required)” who have such a distorted world view that they think that their misinformed perspective should dictate the lives and infringe upon the freedom of millions of Americans daily. Why are we still upholding policy based on lies told a hundred years ago by people who are now dead? This is most certainly a public safety issue but it is also a civil liberties issue just the same, and to ignore that is to uphold the same fractured agenda that caused prohibition in the first place.

  • k2 March 24, 2011 (9:35 am)

    well i for one would NEVER smoke pot, since anything you light on fire becomes a carcinogen.

    It’s much better to actually extract the THC and use it in baked goods such as breads, pastries and the like…sure it’s a different high, but it takes one of natures bests, and makes it ever so tasty!

    People rob banks all the time, why don’t we ban money. It’s worse than any drug, or alcohol could ever be…let’s go back to bartering. That way you’ll have to actually know your neighbors and the sense of community will increase stronger by day, since you’ll have to find someone who knows how to make shoes, and clothes, or build you a deck, and you trade for your ability to provide childcare or grow vegetables…everyone benefits…and crime will disappear.

  • gatewood guy March 24, 2011 (5:12 pm)

    If this is a medicinal shop, then I applaud the support that these patients are receiving from their friends and families. The younger patients, in particular, seem to have a strong support system waiting patiently for them in the parking lot.

    I can see this shop from my window, and judging (I know, not supposed to do that in Seattle) from who I see coming and going, it must be pretty easy to get your special card or letter.

  • Sara March 24, 2011 (6:00 pm)

    @Human: Everyone in their 20s smokes pot? Yeah, right. Maybe everybody in college has TRIED it.. but I’m in my 20s and almost all of my friends (both male and female) do not smoke weed. The few guys that do don’t have very good jobs and don’t have savings (duh, where do you think it’s going?).
    @GatewoodGuy: I agree with you, doesn’t seem a lot of truly “sick” people are benefitting from these places.

  • Kaya March 27, 2011 (1:19 pm)

    Folks who make judgements on mmj …. Please do research. You are misguided and ill informed.

    Please google… Exploring the endocannabinoid system
    Or dr. Robert melamede or dr. Raphael mecheloum

    Young people have diabetes, cancer and a number of other qualifying conditions. Diseases don’t care what your age is.

    Instead of being angry and parroting the lies you were told, explo the truth, and direct your anger toward those who have robbed us of Centuries old healing plant culture in exchange for big pharma and industrial prison systems.

  • Charlie March 27, 2011 (2:02 pm)

    TheJOINTCoop is slated to open in the University District less than a block from my apartment. One of my main concerns with medical marijuana is that it is marketed and treated by many as part of some kind of hip-hop culture amalgamate. Products are marketed in local alternative newspapers as Black-Widow or BlueBerry varietals. I understand pharmaceutical drugs also lead aggressive campaigns, however their means are much more subtle and family appropriate. If someone really does need the assistance of medical marijuana, marketing it as part of this culture shouldn’t be necessary. Putting a pun like JOINT in the name of dispensary and opening it right next to a head shop (Still Smokin’) does not seem conducive to the responsible distribution of a dangerous substance that remains illegal under federal law.

  • Not Dangerous March 27, 2011 (5:11 pm)

    Charlie, you are, unfortunately, poorly educated on this subject. Cannabis is in no way, shape or form a dangerous substance. Go on, do some research, my friend. In all of recorded history there hasn’t been a single death attributed to it. Caffeine is more dangerous than Cannabis.

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