Tacoma officials will look at nuisance code as way to crack down on marijuana dispensaries
Tacomas medical marijuana retailers, some of whom have been in business for more than two years without a clear legal right to exist, say theyre frustrated by the citys caution in officially supporting them.
Im an entrepreneur, said Louis Archuleta, owner of the Herbal Gardens, a posh marijuana shop on Pacific Avenue, just a block away from the downtown architecture firm of City Councilman David Boe. You dont know how frustrating it is to have your hands tied like this.
The City Council last week backed away from a plan that would have created new zoning and land-use regulations for pot dispensaries and so-called collective gardens, saying that if the city officially recognized dispensaries in that way, it would put city employees in violation of state and federal law and vulnerable to prosecution.
This is a sad day for Tacoma, Archuleta said Wednesday, the day after the City Council tabled the dispensary zoning plan. We were heading in the right direction. Then for them to come back and do nothing, that rips the soul out of the system.
Having nixed the zoning plan, city officials now say they instead will try to come up with a different strategy: using the public nuisance code to crack down on marijuana outlets where theyre not wanted.
The first reading of the proposed nuisance code modification is on the councils agenda for Tuesday.
Over the past two years, the city has shown an uneven but largely tolerant view of the dispensaries, at least 40 of which have sprung up during that time.
Council members, and Mayor Marilyn Strickland in particular, have been struggling to come up with a way to keep marijuana suppliers away from parts of the city where neighbors dont want them but not to foreclose all possibilities for qualified medical marijuana patients who believe they need the drug.
The plan would have allowed collective gardens within Tacomas industrial areas and in certain downtown and mixed-used zones. Dispensaries would have been allowed in most commercial-use areas. Sensitive-area buffering would have kept such businesses 1,000 feet or more away from schools, day cares and churches.
Some medical marijuana patients say theyre disappointed to see the city backing away from regulation because of abuses they see at some dispensaries.
Jim Johnston, a Puyallup veteran who takes medical marijuana for pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, says hes visited nearly all of Tacomas dispensaries.
So many of them are being used as fronts for other drugs, like Percoset and oxycontin, Id like to see at least a third of them shut down, Johnston said. They need more stringent regulations on whos getting into the business and whos backing them.
As a paying customer, Johnston says he thinks Tacoma ought to license dispensaries and tax them.
These places are sucking the money in, he said. They ought to pay some of it out to society.
Some in the medical marijuana trade say they dont blame the city or the mayor for their caution. Local officials are boxed in by state and federal laws that need to be changed, they say.
I think the mayor made the right decision, said Michael Schaef, who this month opened Green Light Expo in a former bicycle store on South Tacoma Way. If she allowed dispensaries, it would border on conspiracy.
The way things stand, the only way people can legally get meds in this state is either to grow it themselves or join a collective garden.
I know that she (Strickland) is trying, Schaef said. Ive looked into her eyes when shes talking about helping medical marijuana patients, and I can see that shes sincere. But legally she cant license a dispensary.
Shaef, who helped establish one of the first medical marijuana clubs in Tacoma, Club 420, was arrested and had several thousand dollars worth of marijuana seized. The case against him in Pierce County Superior Court eventually was dismissed. He tried but failed to get his marijuana back.
Schaefs latest venture, for which he was issued a Tacoma business license, will be more like a farmers market, he says. Authorized medical marijuana patients will join a collective garden and buy directly from the farmer, cutting out middlemen and lowering prices.
Its still gray, Shaef admitted, but after years of thinking about it, this is the best I can come up with.
Its like vegetables, he said. You can get them at a store, but its best to get them straight from the gardener.
At the Herbal Gardens, Archuleta said he has invested thousands of dollars in his business, including an expensive mass spectrometer he uses to measure impurities and chemical properties of the marijuana products he sells.
He has other plans for improvements, he said, but hes afraid to invest in them.
Theres no rules, he said. Im afraid to keep going forward and do what needs to be done.
While the medical marijuana trade has been profitable for some, most sellers declare they are in business for humanitarian reasons, telling stories of miraculous recoveries by marijuana users who, if not for dispensaries, could not get their medicine.
Tom Newman is CEO of the Tacoma Medical Collective on Commerce Street, a short stroll from City Hall. He says he makes practically no money in his enterprise and often gives marijuana products away to needy patients who otherwise could not afford them.
Patients are our main goal, he said. We dont want to fight with the city. We want to work with them. Weve fought for a long time to get where we are. Why go backward?
Newman thinks city officials should take a stand and be proactive in making medical marijuana available to those who need it. He said he thinks they should visit other cities and states that are going through the same growing pains with dispensaries and come up with innovative approaches.
That way we could tell Congress, This is the way we want to go forward, Newman said.
Jay Berneberg, a Tacoma lawyer who represents many marijuana retailers, says roughly the same thing. The zoning ordinance tabled by the city last week was a missed opportunity, he said.
Tacoma was in a leadership role on this for the entire state, he said. It made me proud to be here. Now theyve dropped the ball.
Berneberg said he thinks the mayor and the council are concerned unnecessarily about the likelihood of federal prosecution.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws, he said. Medical marijuana has been with us for 16 years. During that time, not one single public employee has been prosecuted for carrying out state law.
Almost exactly one year ago, the Seattle City Council passed a bill declaring that marijuana outlets there should be regulated like any other business. Dispensaries must be licensed, obtain food-handling permits if they sell marijuana cookies or other edibles, and follow all other regulations such as land-use codes.
Spokane, on the other hand, has taken the opposite approach, declaring dispensaries illegal and last year driving at least 50 of them out of business or underground.
Olympia has denied or revoked business licenses to medical marijuana outlets but has taken no steps to close or sanction them.
Contrary to other attorneys opinions, Berneberg says, the regulatory plan before the Tacoma City Council was within the bounds of state law, and the chances of the federal government stepping in were minuscule.
Washingtons medical marijuana law gives counties and cites the right to regulate the way they want to, he said.
Everybody was safe and secure in going forward on that point, he said. This had been hashed out and discussed. Then all of a sudden they got scared and quit.
Berneberg, who said he represents about 100 medical marijuana outlets in Washington, said he does not believe Tacomas caution will make much difference for his clients in the long run.
Weve been involved in this for years in a climate of uncertainty, he said. We anticipated something like this, and we have a contingency plan. It will be business as usual for us.
I dont think anybody is going anywhere.
The Tacoma City Council will meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Council Chambers of the Municipal Building at 747 Market St.