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Tacoma: City Council adopts new rules for medical cannabis gardens under city’s nuisance code

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on July 31, 2012 at 8:19 pm with No Comments »
August 1, 2012 12:08 am

Medical cannabis gardeners take note:   If you don’t flaunt it, advertise it or draw complaints to it, you can grow it in Tacoma.

Or so the City Council intends with a measure unanimously approved Tuesday that seeks to enforce so-called medical cannabis “collective gardens” under the city’s nuisance code.

“Basically, if you’re operating within the provisions of the code, no one is going to complain,” Councilman Joe Lonergan said Tuesday. “And there would be no reason for enforcement.”

The city won’t be as permissive of cannabis dispensaries.  Such retail pot pharmacies – which aren’t defined in the state’s medical cannabis law — are now explicitly labeled as “a public nuisance per se.” That means they are not permitted under any circumstances.

The council’s adopted measure instead adds new code language primarily shaping enforcement of collective gardens for state qualified cannabis patients.

The measure deals with the gardens like the city would a derelict property or other defined public annoyance. It sets up a framework to abate, fine or otherwise crack down on those gardens that draw complaints or noticeably run afoul of a list of new restrictions.

Among the new rules, the gardens can’t operate within 600 feet – about one city block – of a school, daycare, drug rehabilitation center, park, library or youth center.

They also can’t use signs to advertise the sale of cannabis; can’t operate in the open; and can’t permit entry to anyone under 18. Gardens that emanate noticeable odors into a public place or that have patients smoking marijuana in public also would be subject to city enforcement.

The adopted measure also differentiates between gardens grown for medical patients and those for other purposes — labeling the latter as unauthorized.

While federal law prohibits marijuana, Washington is among 17 states and the District of Columbia that have laws with some allowances for its use as medicine. Washington allows up to 10 qualified medical cannabis patients at any time to participate in a single collective garden, which may contain up to 45 plants and 72 ounces of useable cannabis.

By moving the city’s code dealing with collectives in line with state law, Tacoma’s gardens aren’t likely to be targeted by federal authorities, council members say.

“It’s a tight balance we’re trying to walk,” Councilman Ryan Mello said.

The measure comes after nearly two years of the city grappling with an unregulated explosion of medical cannabis ventures.

During that time, the city has raided one dispensary, pursued dozens of license revocations, sought legislative clarity, enacted a dispensary moratorium and seated a task force to examine the issue. The moratorium is set to expire Aug. 1.

All the while, city officials have sought to strike a balance that would allow access to legitimate patients, while protecting city neighborhoods from potential impacts.

Earlier this month, the council dropped a zoning and land-use proposal that largely called to authorize cannabis gardens and dispensaries. City officials said that plan overstepped state and federal law and could have put city employees at legal risk.

Largely written by City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli, the measure that won approval Tuesday included amendments from Lonergan and Councilman Marty Campbell. The revisions eliminated prohibitions in 20 city zoning districts and reduced the restricted buffers to sensitive areas from 1,000 to 600 feet.

“We still wanted to include protective space while not blocking out the entire city,” Campbell said.

Jay Berneberg, an attorney who represents more than a dozen local cannabis dispensaries, called the adopted plan “absolutely better” than the original measure.

“It’s not perfect,” Berneberg said Tuesday. “…(But) with this, it appears the city council wants patients to have access to medical cannabis, and I appreciate that.”

Still unclear is exactly how the city will seek to enforce the dispensary issue. At last count several months ago, 35 dispensaries operated in Tacoma, Pauli said.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax said he’s now working with Pauli and Police Chief Don Ramsdell to draft a new enforcement strategy, which will be in place once the revised nuisance code takes effect in 10 days.  That plan is expected to incorporate elements of voter-approved Proposition 1, which directed Tacoma officials to make cannabis-related offenses the city’s lowest enforcement priority.

As any medical cannabis nuisance code violations will be considered “civil infractions,” it is also unlikely police will seek to raid any existing dispensary, Pauli added.

Some council members hope that under the new rules, legitimate dispensary owners simply will change their business models to collectives that comply to code.

“I think there’s room for dispensaries to come into conformity,” Campbell said.


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