Seattle passes bill regulating medical pot shops

Chris Grygiel
Seattle PI

Setting up a possible confrontation with the federal government, the City Council on Monday passed a new law that establishes a regulatory framework for the growing number of medical marijuana dispensaries in Seattle.

The City Council unanimously passed its own ordinance because efforts to address medical marijuana, which is legal in Washington, foundered earlier this year in Olympia.

“How did we get here? The upshot is, (dispensaries are) here and we should regulate them,” City Councilwoman Sally Clark said before the vote.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Nick Licata, requires medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain a business license, pay taxes and fees and meet city land use codes. They would also be subject to the requirements of the city’s “Chronic Nuisance Property Law,” meaning if there are repeated complaints about activity at the establishments they could face fines or possible closure. The “open use and display of cannabis” would also be prohibited at the dispensaries.

Clark said in the coming months the Council would come up with zoning rules for the businesses – deciding where they can locate and where they would be banned. Dispensaries have opened in Ballard, Capitol Hill and SoDo, to name just a few neighborhoods.

“For now, we’re trying to provide as much clarity as we can,” she said.

Phillip Dawdy, an advocate for changes to marijuana laws who spoke in favor the city ordinance. “At the end of the day it’s patients that are going to be left out in the cold and pushed on the market if municipalities don’t start dealing with this,” he said.

The state Legislature had passed a medical pot bill, but Gov. Chris Gregoire rejected most of it. She said she worried the legislation put state workers at risk of federal prosecution.

Evergreen State voters approved legalizing medical marijuana in 1998. Washington is one of 16 states which allows marijuana use for medical purposes, but the federal government does not recognize any medicinal use for cannabis. The bill that passed in Olympia was designed to set clearer regulations on medical marijuana use and to establish a licensing system and patient registry to protect qualifying patients, doctors and providers from criminal liability. Gregoire vetoed provisions of the bill that would have licensed and regulated medical marijuana dispensaries and producers. She also vetoed a provision for a patient registry under the Department of Health.

Uncle Sam has made it clear – the sale and use of marijuana for any purposes violates federal law. Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for Jenny Durkan, the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, referred reporters to a memo written earlier this year by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole  that reiterates that people who use, sell or cultivate pot for medical use face arrest and prosecution.

State laws are “not a defense” to civil or criminal enforcement of federal law, Cole said. “Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law,” he said. Those individuals could also face federal money laundering charges, according to Cole.

And the City Council was previously warned that their new rule might not stand up in state court because, according to one attorney, Seattle can’t regulate an illegal business without a specific authority.

Seattle’s mayor and city attorney and King County’s executive and prosecutor had all supported establishing a state framework for medical marijuana.

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