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Medical-pot dispensaries fear raids


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In partially vetoing a landmark medical marijuana bill last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire gutted the legal theory under which at least 100 storefront dispensaries opened in the past year and a half, leaving the dispensaries at much greater risk of prosecution or civil action when the new law takes effect in July.

The state's yearlong boom in medical-marijuana dispensaries is suddenly threatening to turn into a bust.

In partially vetoing a landmark medical-marijuana bill last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire gutted the legal theory under which at least 100 storefront dispensaries opened in the past year and a half.

That leaves dispensaries – which had been tolerated in some cities pending the outcome in Olympia – at much greater risk of prosecution or civil action when the new law takes effect in July.

In response, some dispensary owners are pooling money for legal defense or making contingency plans should they be arrested.

Others, such as Dennis Coughlin, are resigned that he soon will be forced to close.

"It's inevitable," said Coughlin, president of nonprofit Cannabis Outreach Services in Lacey. "At some point, in the fairly near future, there's going to be a concerted effort statewide" to close dispensaries.

The governor's veto effectively turns back the clock on medical marijuana, first approved by voters in 1998.

"It wasn't a step backward. It was take-off-running backward," said Lynden farmer John Grubb, a qualified patient who had expressed interest in becoming a licensed grower.

The bill Gregoire partially vetoed, SB 5073, was in response to pressure from cities, police and patients to clarify how qualified medical-marijuana patients may get their medicine. The boom in dispensaries – some of them for-profit and operating like retail stores – forced the issue.

Now, patients and advocates who had just weeks ago hoped for a regulated supply-and-distribution chain fear state or federal raids.

One of the few groups pleased with the outcome is the state police and sheriff's association. "I think the proponents [of marijuana] swung for the fences, and there was just too much stuff in the bill," said Don Pierce, executive director of the association.

After five months of debating the contentious issue, legislators now might be asked to do so again. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said she is working on a narrowly crafted new bill to restore a patient registry vetoed by Gregoire and to decriminalize nonprofit patient collectives.

There are high hurdles to such a bill, including the requirement that GOP caucuses agree to allow it. "Passing legislation dealing with marijuana laws is not the priority for House Republicans," House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said in a statement.

During a planning session for the possible new bill Monday, a Seattle official urged lawmakers to clarify how much authority cities have under a local-control provision that Gregoire left in the law.

Some attorneys read that provision – which allows cities to impose restrictions on "licensed dispensers" – as a means for pot-friendly cities to set rules. Seattle already has at least 30 dispensaries and likely will become even more of a magnet.

"I really think it will be left to the discretion of local governments," said Alison Holcomb, director of drug policy for the ACLU of Washington.

If the Legislature does not act, dispensaries clearly are at greater legal risk because Gregoire's veto undercuts their best legal defense. That defense had rested on a vague definition of the patient-provider relationship that is now much tighter.

"If I were in King County, I wouldn't panic, but you have to know you're living with the ax over your head," Seattle defense attorney Jeffrey Steinborn said.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is frustrated that, instead of easing access to medical marijuana for patients, the new law does the opposite, said deputy chief of staff Ian Goodhew.

If the law is not changed by the Legislature, "We'd continue to use our discretion in charge, but it would make it much more difficult to allow patients and providers who are in partial but not complete compliance with the law to avoid prosecution," Goodhew said.

Oscar Velasco-Schmitz opened Dockside Co-op, a dispensary in Fremont, in March in anticipation of the new licensing. He said the storefront dispensary system is efficient and safe, and believes legal risk in Seattle is minimal.

"I believe we're acting in good faith," he said. "If some entity choose to think otherwise, we'll deal with that."

Outside Seattle, cities largely had taken a jaundiced view of dispensaries, but several were waiting for Olympia. Now, civil actions to close dispensaries in Tacoma, Federal Way, Shoreline and other cities are likely to move forward.

Gregoire's veto "certainly galvanized most of the cities," said Seattle attorney Aaron Pelley, who represents dispensaries. "Before, they were willing to work with us. Now they say they won't."

During the session, more than a dozen people sent "letters of intent" to state agencies declaring their interest, should the law pass, in becoming licensed dispensaries or growers.

Grubb now regrets his letter. He said he is so nervous that he stopped growing his medical marijuana.

Dale Rogers, a longtime medical-marijuana advocate in Seattle, said he is frustrated by Gregoire's veto.

But he said he is offended by how the newly opened dispensaries had operated, with garish advertising and high prices, compared to the discretion of longtime patient collectives.

"A lot of people who are jumping into this don't come from a medical background," Rogers said. "For a lot of these folks, it's 'wha-hoo, high times.' "

He said he believes law enforcement will notice the difference, and prosecute judiciously.
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