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Tacoma: Mayor proposes compromise to allow legitimate pot dispensaries to continue operating

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Oct. 19, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
October 20, 2010 9:43 am

Seeking to nip a potential controversy over medical marijuana in the bud, the Tacoma City Council on Tuesday agreed to a compromise plan: It would allow established medicinal pot dispensaries to continue selling to patients until state lawmakers provide clarity to Washington’s medical marijuana law.

“The Tacoma City Council is not opposed to safe and legal access to medical marijuana for patients with legitimate need,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Tuesday.

Under Strickland’s proposal for stemming a controversy ignited when the city’s tax and licenses manager issued cease and desist letters to eight medical marijuana dispensaries, the city will agree to suspend taking any action so long as each of the dispensaries file appeals to the letters.

The city would suspend setting hearings on those appeals until the end of the 2011 state legislative session, during which state lawmakers are expected to clarify portions of the medical marijuana law enacted in 1999 after citizens passed a ballot measure.

“The way the current law is written is confusing,” said Strickland, who noted that the council recently adopted language in the city’s legislative policy manual that encourages the state to clarify the law.

Strickland detailed the plan to fellow council members less than two hours before pot activists and medicinal marijuana patients were set to converge on City Hall to protest the threatened shutdown of dispensaries in the city.

But whether state lawmakers actually can accomplish such clarity is another issue.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who has sponsored bills to clarify the medical marijuana initiative every year since it was passed — and will again next session — said perennial obstacles exist to stymie such efforts.

“A lot of legislators are worried about voting on anything involving marijuana,” she said. “There’s not a cohesive community of activists.”

A spokesman for a group seeking to legalize pot in Washington, which planned to stage a protest rally at City Hall Tuesday, called the council’s late-breaking comprise “mildly encouraging.”

“We’re just starting to hear details about (the plan) now,” Philip Dawdy, spokesman for Sensible Washington, supporters of a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, said about an hour before the rally was set to begin. “It’s mildly encouraging – but the city should just drop the whole thing.”

Even with the city’s commitment to suspend closing down dispensaries, Dawdy said, “there’s still latitude there for law enforcement abuses.”

“The law is big enough for that (wiggle room) and clearly, there are people on TPD that are enforcing it pretty damn tight,” he added.

Among other things, Strickland and council members noted that Tacoma Police still would continue to take actions against dispensaries if illegal pot sales beyond those for legitimate medical use occur.

The city also would seek to impose a moratorium on business licenses for applicants seeking to establish new dispensaries until after state lawmakers clarify the issue.

Strickland said she met with Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell and others to discuss the compromise, after medical marijuana and pot legalization proponents from across the state announced Monday they would converge on Tacoma City Hall Tuesday night to protest eight cease and desist letters sent to local medical pot dispensaries.

Sent by city Tax and Licenses Manager Jodie Trueblood, the letters – dated October 14 – came with the subject line: “Notice to Cease Dispensing Marijuana.” The notices specifically cited part of the state’s medical marijuana law, noting 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,” stated the letter, adding that failure to comply would subject each dispensary to revocation of business license and potential civil and criminal penalties.

Pot proponents – including Sensible Washington members — argued the city’s interpretation of the law was far narrower than other jurisdictions, including Seattle, which generally allows such dispensaries to operate.

“The City of Tacoma is clearly misinterpreting state law on medical marijuana,” said Sensible Washington chair and medical marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt. “The City’s reading of the law is inconsistent with what Washington voters approved in 1998. It’s also inconsistent with how the same law is read by King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.”

City Council members said they were caught off guard by the city notices – and the controversy they stirred.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” Councilman Marty Campbell said.

Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano apologized to council members Tuesday for city staff sending the letters being sent without first consulting the council.

Medical marijuana has been a hot topic in Tacoma since a dispensary – Club 420 – was raided in mid-May and two men arrested on a slew of drug-related charges. Both have pleaded not guilty.

After the raid, dozens of residents and business owners showed up at a City Council meeting to express concern about wasting city resources and making it more difficult for patients to obtain medicine in a safe manner. Strickland later suggested the city include language in the city’s legislative policy manual that encourages state lawmakers to clarify the medical marijuana law.

“The reason these letters went out is you have a few of these alleged providers that are dealing drugs, and they’re ruining it for legitimate providers,” Strickland added.

Even as protesters began to arrive for the rally at City Hall Tuesday afternoon, Strickland and the council were in a ninth-floor meeting room discussing the proposed compromise and hearing input from City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli.

“The best solution would be to have the Legislature get in there and to make things clear for everyone,” Pauli said.

Because the issue was not an item on the council’s agenda Tuesday – public comment is generally reserved for agenda items — Strickland said that the council would not allow any medical marijuana protesters to speak at the regular council meeting. Council members instead invited them to provide written comments, or return next month for the city’s next regularly scheduled Citizens’ Forum – when anyone can speak about any issue.

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