Washington: Seattle Mayor Plans Crackdown On Medical Marijuana Dispensaries
By Steve Elliott
Apparently not content to wait for the scheduled extinction date of medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington -- set for July 1, 2016 -- Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Tuesday proposed legislation that could shut down dozens of dispensaries in the city.
Mayor Murray's plan would create a new business license specifically for medical marijuana dispensaries and create enforcement priorities for unlicensed shops, reports Evan Bush at The Seattle Times.
The plan follows the Washington Legislature's attempts to "fold" medical marijuana into the state's recreational cannabis system established under I-502 and SB 5052. The latter law, approved last month, calls for the Washington State Liquor Control Board (which will be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Board) to "assess the merit" of medical marijuana dispensaries are license those which qualify by July 2016.
The LCB still hasn't come up with the rules for grading medical marijuana dispensaries, and many observers believe the ultimate goal isn't to license the businesses anyway, but rather to shut almost all of them down. It's not yet clear how many additional licenses Seattle might get, or which businesses could get those licenses.
During the interim period between now and the extinction date next July, medical marijuana dispensaries in "good standing" within the city would be allowed to continue operating until the LCB issues state licenses -- or doesn't.
"What we're proposing here is a responsible way to strengthen the legal market and support a pathway for many other good actors in the industry to become legal in the long term," claimed Murray spokesman Viet Shelton.
If Murray's plan is approved, Seattle's Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) would revoke many dispensaries' business licenses; those shops would then be subject to fines and "legal action" if they don't shut down.
“Any sort of criminal action is our last resort — only if our civil remedies fail to close a noncompliant business,” claimed David Mendoza, the mayor’s policy adviser on marijuana.
The city would prioritize enforcement against dispensaries selling marijuana to "underage buyers," which could happen since the Legislature just changed the law -- which formerly allowed medical marijuana patients 18 and older -- to require patients to be at least 21 years old.
Enforcement will also be prioritized against dispensaries "being investigated by law enforcement," which could mean almost anything, those manufacturing edibles that "knock off" mainstream brands or appeal to kids, and dispensaries that did not receive a city business license before January 2, 2013.
The city estimates about 45 of the estimated 99 Seattle dispensaries got business licenses before that arbitrary cutoff date.
"Establishments open before Jan. 1, 2013 -- pending they don't fall into one of the enforcement priorities for other violations -- will be allowed to operate until July 2016," Mendoza said.
Seattle has "taken steps" to catalog dispensaries and the complaints or code violations against them, according to Mendoza, in preparing for "enforcement." Finance and Administrative Services has also conducted stings on dispensaries to check if they were selling illegally.
"Some stores are selling without medical authorizations," Mendoza claimed. "We're building cases against them."
The city also listed second-tier and third-tier considerations for enforcement; those include medical marijuana delivery, fire and building code violations, on-site cannabis consumption, selling untested marijuana to patients, and being within 1,000 feet of a school or playground, or within 500 feet of another dispensary.
Businesses can appeal violations assessed by the city, and can contest suspensions or license revocations. Those cases will be handled by the independent Office of the Hearing Examiner.
Many of the shops which opened before the January 2013 cutoff, not surprisingly, support the mayor's plan, with some reservations about its implementation. Those which opened after the cutoff, not shockingly, are upset.
Patient advocates are worried over safe access, since many of the best shops opened after the January 2013 deadline. Many patients would have preferred that the mayor's office weigh how well dispensaries serve patients, rather when they opened.
"It's been all about lotteries and dates, there's no connection to quality," said Killy Nichelin, co-owner of Iconic Cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary that opened after the deadline.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Kaufman, chair of the Coalition for Cannabis Standards & Ethics, said his group favors the plan, but with reservations.
"What it kind of comes down to is Seattle's execution," said Kaufman, calling people who opened medical marijuana dispensaries after recreational pot was legalized "profiteers."
"Anyone that came in to operate a cannabis business after that date, I have a hard time being sympathetic," said Kaufman, who had a cannabis business, The CPC, before that date.
Many businesses are concerned about how the distance rules will be handled, according to lobbyist Philip Dawdy; the mayor's office wants to destroy clusters of dispensaries in some areas of town.
The stores have had to congregate, because it's hard to find real estate, according to Dawdy. "You can't operate if nobody will rent to you," he said.
Dawdy said some dispensary clusters have kept a relatively low profile and shouldn't be penalized.
Mayor Murray's office estimates that the plan will cost more than $800,000 to implement -- and that doesn't include costs to the city's law department or the Seattle Fire Department. It also doesn't factor in the lost sales tax proceeds from the shops which will be shut down.
"We're finding it," Mendoza said when asked where the $800,000 will come from. City regulatory licenses will cost $1,000, so even if 50 shops qualify, they're still $750,000 short.
Growers or processors outside of Seattle that sell wholesale medical marijuana products to retailers would be required to get a $500 license, as well. "We're asking not just the places located in Seattle, but anyone selling in Seattle" to become licensed, Mendoza said.
"If you're growing in Eastern Washington and selling in Seattle, you need a regulatory business license," Mendoza said.
Under the mayor's plan, the city could fine dispensaries for violating rules as minor as improper signage, or selling to authorized patients under 21. "We're considering our own compliance checks for underage buyers," Mondoza said.
The legislation will be sent to the Seattle City Council next week. A council vote will probably happen later this summer, according to Councilmember Nick Licata.
Photo of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray: The Seattle Times