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No decisions yet on marijuana by Tacoma City Council

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on July 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm | 7 Comments »
July 20, 2011 2:49 pm

Seattle is getting ready to license medical-marijuana providers. Kent, Federal Way and Fife have temporarily banned them. Tacoma hasn’t taken action.

But the City Council doesn’t have much longer to wait out the issue.

Key dates loom: A new state law takes effect Friday. A hearing is Monday for dozens of marijuana dispensaries ordered by city government to shut down, which the City Council postponed last October after public complaints. And by August 10, council members must decide whether to approve a measure signed by thousands of voters making pot “the lowest enforcement priority” for Tacoma police. If they do nothing, it will go to the November ballot.

Some advocates are impatient.

“This is where we lack leadership on our City Council,” said Sherry Bockwinkel, a leader of the Initiative 1 campaign. “They were the ones who forced this issue last October, and they are the only city that’s done nothing.”

“It’s like they all went asleep at the switch.”

Council members say they have questions about their legal options. They want to regulate sellers to weed out the bad ones and keep the legitimate ones safe and far from places like schools. But some look askance at their neighbor to the north.

“I will look to see what Seattle is doing, but I think Seattle, like a lot of cities in California and Colorado, are kind of taking what I call a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ position,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said, adding that’s threatened public safety in some places in California. “But it’s not an easy place for us.”

Council members put the blame on Olympia.

“The state law has tied our hands,” Councilwoman Lauren Walker said.

Walker said she wants to find a way to make sure patients — people like her late husband, Marcus, who used medical marijuana for relief this winter as cancer attacked his body — can buy marijuana without leaving Tacoma. “I don’t know how to do that yet,” Walker said.

This winter, Walker and the council urged state lawmakers to act to clarify the 1998 voter-approved law on medical marijuana, including the question of whether dispensaries are legal.

The Legislature approved a measure legalizing and licensing dispensaries, but Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed large sections of it, saying threats by federal authorities had persuaded her state employees might be prosecuted for their connection to a marijuana business that is still entirely illegal under federal law.

The tatters of the law that take effect Friday leave legal discretion to local governments, but they eliminate a legal rationale that dispensaries had used. City staff will continue its pursuit of marijuana sellers Monday before city Hearing Examiner Rodney Kerslake.

“It not only remains the city’s position that dispensaries are unlawful,” Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli told the council at a discussion of marijuana Tuesday, “but the newest version of the legislation is in our view even worse for the dispensaries — makes the city’s position that they are unlawful even more firm.”

The new law does legalize collective gardens, allowing up to 10 patients to pool together with up to 45 marijuana plants.

So dispensaries are shifting business models. They will become nonprofit “access points” for collective gardens, said Seattle attorney Aaron Pelley. It’s “the only model that really seems to be available to them,” said Pelley, whose Tacoma clients include North End Club 420 and Green Health.

Under that model, storefronts, located away from the gardens, would maintain a rotating membership. A patient would join a collective on the way into a retail outlet and revoke his membership on the way out.

Seattle has accepted that legal model. The City Council passed an ordinance this week requiring that medical-marijuana providers obtain a city business license and comply with land-use and nuisance laws.

Lawyers for dispensaries are approaching Tacoma and Pierce County officials to make the same case.

Walker asked city staff Tuesday for more information about actions by other cities. “It’s so important what the other jurisdictions are doing,” she said.

Outside of Seattle, cities have gone in the other direction. Kent, Federal Way and Fife joined several other Washington cities in passing temporary moratoria on sellers. Even before the ban, Federal Way denied business licenses to dispensaries.

Strickland said sellers need to be licensed like other businesses, and questioned if all of them are legitimate.

“We have more dispensaries than we have pharmacies in Tacoma,” Strickland said, saying there could be up to 50. “If there are 50 dispensaries, we must have a lot of really sick people in this city.”

“We’ve got to take control of the situation and regulate it,” Councilman Ryan Mello said.

As for the initiative, council members aren’t poised to approve it any time soon. If they ignore the measure, voters will consider it. The measure is similar to one Seattle passed in 2003 and is intended to take small-scale marijuana crimes off the police’s agenda.

Mello said the council should “let the voters decide.”

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