Last week, City of Seattle officials announced a proposal to regulate the medical marijuana industry within city limits - a proposal that would restrict the medical pot activity allowed in single-family and multifamily residential zones, as well as small business areas, and historic districts like the Pike Place Market and International District.
The idea behind the proposal is to curtail the medical pot activity in these locations to what the State allows in a single collective garden, thus limiting "the off-site impact of larger-scale cannabis-related activity in zones where they may have increased impacts on neighborhood character or security," according to a city release announcing the proposal.
Earlier this week, the Seattle City Council's Sally Clark took a moment to candidly blog about the city's efforts to regulate medical marijuana and the many complications involved with striking the proper balance.
As Clark notes:
As anyone who walks, rides or drives the city can tell you, medical marijuana seems to be booming business. In my unscientific drive of Rainier Valley I found 11 or 12 shops between Rainier Beach and South Dearborn Street. Watch for the green crosses and the big MMJ letters.
On the Sunday I checked them out and walked into a couple, plenty were open and I observed a mix of people inside and out. You walk into a small waiting area and talk initially with a staff person behind an enclosed counter about your order. No huge crowds. Some people who, frankly, looked unwell. Other people, well, maybe they were picking up for a sick relative.
Cities including Seattle have been hoping to get guidance from the state about what's legal and what's not when it comes to the production, processing and provision of medical marijuana. Unfortunately, the clarity train has derailed each of the past two sessions. We know collective gardens are the preferred form for access, but that's about all we know. In the meantime several cities in the state have instituted moratoriums prohibiting the establishment of medical marijuana collectives.
Clark's blog post speaks to the difficulty officials in Washington face when confronted with the medical marijuana question under current state law, and similar sentiments have been offered on record in differing variations by a number of people in positions similar to Clark's (though Clark's may be the first including usage of the phrase "the clarity train has derailed.")
Instead of enacting a moratorium in Seattle (like Kent, for instance) Clark says the city has decided to try the regulation route - hoping that by requiring medical pot businesses to obtain licenses and holding them "to community standards like any other business," as she puts it, that the burgeoning industry can be held in check while at the same time protecting patients' right to the medicine they're allowed under state law.
Of course, not everyone is a big fan of the city's efforts to regulate medical marijuana.
Douglas Hiatt, a longtime marijuana defense attorney and founder of Sensible Washington, is one of the unconvinced and un-thrilled.
"It's ridiculous, because they don't have the authority to do this," Hiatt told Seattle Weekly last week. "The State Controlled Substances Act preempts the field when it comes to the regulation of controlled substances."
"They don't even know if they've got the authority to do this. That hasn't been tested in court yet, and I believe very clearly that they don't," says Hiatt. "It's clear you cannot regulate illegal activities, and under our state law marijuana is still illegal, all the time, everywhere. You can't regulate it like this unless you legalize it, or legalize the sale of it under state law, and they haven't done that."
In December Hiatt filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle questioning any regulation of the ever-expanding medical marijuana industry, based on the same argument; in laymen's terms, he contends the city can't regulate something that's technically illegal.
Because of the lawsuit, Clark was unable to comment on Hiatt's contentions.
"The state controlled substances act (RCW 69.50.608) 'preempts the entire field of setting penalties for violations of the controlled substances act.' The act does not preempt regulation of everything having anything to do with controlled substances. None of Seattle's regulations set penalties for violations of the controlled substances act," says the City Attorney's Office in response to Hiatt's contentions.
As far as federal laws regarding pot, the City Attorney's office is equally as confident in its right to regulate the medical marijuana industry.
"Whether or not a particular activity is legal under federal law, the City has the authority to apply its own zoning rules, building codes, business taxes, and other local regulations," says City Attorney's Office Communications Director Kimberly Mills.
Community discussion on the proposed medical marijuana regulations will continue through the fall, with City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Clark scheduled to drop in on Neighborhood Council meetings through December to gather feedback before the full council ultimately weighs in on the matter in early 2013.