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Tacoma City Council sets moratorium on marijuana dispensaries, collective gardens

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Aug. 2, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
August 2, 2011 7:39 pm

Sellers of medical marijuana aren’t legal in Tacoma, city lawyers contend.

Today the City Council temporarily banned them anyway.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said the six-month moratorium she proposed and the council unanimously approved is merely a prelude to future regulation that she hopes will license legitimate sellers and allow them to operate.

The moratorium bans dispensaries as well as the so-called collective gardens that were legalized by the Legislature this year. The gardens are forbidden whether or not they are connected to a business.

The ban probably won’t have much effect on the dozens of existing storefront medical-marijuana providers in Tacoma. That’s because the city is already going through the legal process of trying to shut them down — while allowing them to remain open as their appeals proceed and the council thinks about how to regulate them.

Those that might have to worry are new operations that are not already embroiled in legal appeals with the city, or people who are thinking about opening such a business.

“If you do, we’re going to shut you down,” Strickland said.

But while a shutdown might start with sending a letter, it’s not clear what happens after that. Would police raid the place? City Manager Rey Arellano said he and his staff hasn’t yet decided on an enforcement strategy.

The moratorium leaves it to Arellano to enforce the law — “in a manner that will continue to preserve legal access to medical cannabis for qualifying patients.”

That means in effect that the city won’t take any new enforcement action against existing businesses, city staff and council members said.

“We’re keeping the dispensaries open,” Councilwoman Lauren Walker said, explaining the moratorium gives the council “a modicum of control” to make sure they don’t multiply any further.

Still, the moratorium bans the “operation” or “continuation” of any medical marijuana dispensary or collective garden, in keeping with city lawyers’ insistence that the businesses are already illegal.

“If you’re going to pass a moratorium,” attorney Jay Berneburg told the council, “please do not close the businesses and ruin the incomes and jobs of literally a couple hundred people and the safe access to marijuana of several thousand patients.”

Several marijuana providers or their attorneys testified against the moratorium Tuesday — mystifying Councilman Joe Lonergan, who said they should the businesses should be glad they will effectively be grandfathered in.

“Very rarely does the government step in and say ‘Those who have a business open currently are going to face zero competition for the next six months,’” Lonergan said.

“Celebrate,” he advised.

A new state law allows up to 10 people to band together to share marijuana plants in collective gardens. Sellers in Tacoma and elsewhere have seized on the law, saying a business can act as an entry point where buyers can briefly become members of collectives.

The moratorium on those and other sellers takes effect immediately as an emergency measure after the council’s 7-0 vote, with Spiro Manthou and David Boe absent. It now goes to an Aug. 17 Planning Commission review and Sept. 7 and 27 public hearings.

While advocates complained that the public’s first chance to see the moratorium came on the day it was approved, Strickland said it’s a sign the council is moving to come up with a way to eventually allow the businesses. For months the council waited for the Legislature to act.

Strickland said the city would now set up a task force to come up with ideas. Meantime, the Planning Commission is tasked with coming up with zoning proposals for medical marijuana, with an eye toward their locations in relation to schools, day cares, parks, churches, courts, jails and drug rehab facilities.

“I brought this forward as soon as possible because I want us to get working as soon as possible on regulations,” Strickland said.

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