The city council has not yet decided how to handle dispensaries, but, according to a report today in the News Tribune, it's highly unlikely that the seven-person council will put the kibosh on pot. "I think we've moved beyond the discussion about whether or not we're going to do medical marijuana," councilman Marty Campbell told the TNT, calling it "something we see as part of our city."
UPDATE @ 2:25 p.m. with comments from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.
"Please know that I will allocate all the resources necessary to investigate the unlawful sale and/or dispensing of marijuana in Pierce County." That was the closing salvo from Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor in a letter mailed last Friday to Tacoma-area medical-marijuana providers. Combined with a meeting scheduled Thursday by the Tacoma City Council to discuss how to regulate prescription pot amid the post-Gregoire veto legal haze, more than 30 dispensaries in south Puget Sound could potentially go up in smoke in the coming weeks.
Pastor's letter, mailed to 15 dispensaries operating in Pierce County, is the biggest cause for concern. The Sheriff warned that the state's Medical Use of Cannabis Act now prohibits dispensaries from operating as "designated providers" unless they wait 15 days between transactions. The letter warned that the changes took effect on July 22, and that any businesses operating under the old model are committing felonies.
But, just as in Seattle, many Tacoma pot providers have already switched to the "collective garden" model sanctioned by the new law. Here's how that works, as reported by the inimitable Curtis Cartier last week:
The law says that up to 10 patients can participate in a collective garden and each garden can hold up to 45 plants.
But it's what the law doesn't say that's perhaps most important.
The law doesn't say, for example, how many gardens one plot of land can hold or how often patients can switch gardens. This is hugely important because the difference between being able to grow one marijuana garden and many is typically the difference between operating a legitimate dispensary versus a small shared crop between friends.
Jay Berneberg, a Tacoma attorney who represents more than 20 dispensaries, says he hand-delivered a reply to Pastor yesterday on behalf of his clients explaining the new business model. Still, he remains anxious about the underlying message being conveyed by the Sheriff. (Pastor didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from Seattle Weekly, but the Sheriff told the Tacoma News Tribune that he believes the new state law blocks dispensaries from having an "atmosphere of lots of clients and easy access.")
"I don't know what actions they'll do if any on these guys," Berneberg says. "One of the big concerns, what's been eating at me, they're trying to create a perception that medical-marijuana facilities are lawless drug dealers, they're bandits looking for a quasi-legal way to sell marijuana. There may be something out there that gave them that perception, it may be based on a true story in one instance, but my clients have clean, secure facilities that are run in an orderly fashion. Their patients have their authorization cards and the people that run them are safe, responsible business people."
Berneberg points to a recently formed alliance of 17 Tacoma medical-marijuana providers called the Greener Business Bureau that is working to establish industry standards and will offer accreditation to business that "operate lawfully and to the highest medical and ethical standards."
The issue of legitimizing, and perhaps tightly regulating, dispensaries will be on the agenda Thursday for the Tacoma City Council. In March, the City sent out "Cease and Desist" letters to 14 business telling them that they'd run afoul of state law by servicing more than one patient at a time.
Rob McNair-Huff, Tacoma's community relations manager, says the city was concerned about the proliferation of dispensaries that occurred as the state legislature was drafting the new medical pot law. "We hoped the state would be able to provide clarity in the law," Huff-McNair says. "Unfortunately, it came out of Olympia with a more confused situation than we had before."
McNair-Huff says the city could enact zoning laws as a way to restrict the businesses, of which there are now at least 30. But he also says its possible that the Council could opt for an ordinance similar to the one recently enacted by the Seattle City Council. In the meantime, he emphasizes, it's unlikely that Tacoma will take immediate steps to shutter dispensaries.
"I wouldn't anticipate there's going to be any tangible change on the street while that conversation is continuing," McNair-Huff says. "What the Council members have said in a number of public meetings is they don't want to send people who are medical patients to go out to street corners to buy medicine. They recognize the need for people have some way to buy medical cannabis."
UPDATE @ 2:25 p.m.: Ed Troyer, a detective with the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, called to explain the intent of the letters sent to the dispensaries.
"We just want everybody to make sure we're all on the same page so there's no surprises," Troyer says. "There's a lot of wrangling left to be done on this. What we sent out was just the law as we interpret it through our legal adviser . . . The ones who are attempting to be compliant are the ones who got the letter. The bad ones we don't know about until they get themselves into trouble."
Troyer says the target of future investigations in Pierce County will be individuals who flout the new law, not dispensaries on the up-and-up. He cautions that "Right now, we're not doing full-scale grow-op takedowns like we have in the past."
He also notes that the way the new law is written makes it difficult for law enforcement to prosecute cases involving medical marijuana. "Obviously we want to be upfront about what we think," Troyer says. "We still need to wait for tighter, better laws to be written on this, and when we have them, we'll interpret them again and let everybody know."