By summer, Tacoma city officials hope to rid the city of all marijuana shops except a handful of state-licensed stores.
The Tacoma City Council told staff Tuesday to get ready to shut down unlicensed marijuana businesses, many of which cater to medical pot users. Letters telling business owners to cease operations could be mailed by early next year.
Five stores operating under Initiative 502’s regulatory framework for recreational marijuana have opened in Tacoma this year, according to city staff. Under state licensing guidelines, the state Liquor Control Board could permit three more.
But those licensed recreational stores would still be vastly outnumbered by the unlicensed shops, which city staff say number at least 56.
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Unlicensed marijuana stores do not pay the high taxes that state-licensed stores do, nor are they subject to the strict regulations that recreational pot businesses must obey. This amounts to an unfair playing field, said Mayor Marilyn Strickland.
“You have people who have gone through the rules of trying to establish a legitimate business and they are being undercut by people doing illegitimate business,” Strickland said.
Cities around the state have hoped the Legislature would address how to fold medical marijuana into the legal recreational market. But so far the state has not, forcing cities like Tacoma to act.
“We do not have the type of regulatory guidance that the state deserved to give us, and now we are left to make sure our community isn’t burned by this,” said Councilman Robert Thoms.
Four years ago, the city sent cease-and-desist letters to eight medical marijuana dispensaries, but later backed off. Council members wanted people who had permission from a doctor to use marijuana to have access to it without having to resort to street dealers.
But since then, voters have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and the state Liquor Control Board has established rules for the plant and its products, from growing and processing to the retail shelf — rules that don’t apply to the products being sold in medical marijuana and unlicensed shops.
Medical marijuana shops operate in a gray area of the law. Collective gardens remain legal, but City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said many of the Tacoma unlicensed shops don’t even try to comply with the state definition for collective gardens.
On Tuesday, Pauli presented four options for dealing with the unlicensed stores. Council members picked the toughest approach.
“I’m ready to fire a shot across the bow and tell the illegal operations that it’s time to stop,” said Councilwoman Lauren Walker, who has supported legal access to medical marijuana and whose late husband tried medical marijuana in 2011. “I did not respect the business model that was used in the early days. I am a believer of the business model we have now.”
Council members questioned the legitimacy of the so-called “green cards,” which give patients permission to buy medical marijuana. Strickland said she can’t prove the unlicensed stores are selling exclusively to patients.
Pauli said she could hire the staff necessary to follow through on enforcement by early next year. At around that time, the city will send letters to illegally operating marijuana stores to close within 90 days. Business owners can appeal but will not be allowed to operate during the appeal period, she said.
Residents will still be able to buy marijuana from the state-licensed retail stores. If they have a medical marijuana card from a health care professional, they can grow pot for personal use.