Politics & Government

Medical pot patients urge Tacoma council to keep marijuana shops open

Until recently, Sonia Leyva was on pharmaceutical pain killers for the lingering effects of a car crash that ended her career as a 911 dispatcher.

A self-described “marijuana refugee,” she moved to this state a year ago from Massachusetts, to care for her mother and because Washington had medical marijuana stores.

She said she comes to Tacoma because she feels as ifthe staff at the dispensaries are more knowledgeable than in Sammamish where she lives.

“I travel to your city to spend my money,” Leyva told the Tacoma City Council on Tuesday. “It is saving my life and my mother’s.”

The difference between relying on pain medication and using medical marijuana, she said, is profound: “If you could imagine walking around your entire life with a mask on and being able to breathe for the first time.”

On Tuesday, Leyva and nearly 100 others urged the City Council to keep medical marijuana available rather than shutting down so-called dispensaries, as it promised to do in December.

Terminal cancer patients, disabled veterans and others with chronic pain and illnesses made their way through the standing-room-only crowd to the lectern. Many said medical marijuana saved their lives and they don’t want to resort to buying it from a drug dealer.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland listened intently to speakers and took notes. The council intends to forward many comments to state legislators, who Strickland said have a responsibility to create clear regulations that cities can enforce and that business owners and patients can follow.

But nothing people said Tuesday will alter the city’s direction, Strickland said before Tuesday’s hearing, which was scheduled in the wake of the council’s decision to close the shops.

“I think we need to hear from people who have a legitimate need. It will re-emphasize the need for the state Legislature to act,” she said. “We shouldn’t have a patchwork of regulations.”

Afterward, she said “this reinforces that there are patients with legitimate needs.”

City staff have been instructed to send letters to all unlicensed marijuana shops in the city ordering them to cease operations. The council will meet later this month to decide when to send the letters to businesses.

The city previously had taken a grudgingly permissive stance toward medical marijuana shops. But now that the recreational marijuana market authorized by Initiative 502 is up and running, council members say it’s time for the Legislature to similarly regulate the medical marijuana industry.

Last month, city staff estimated that about 56 unlicensed medical pot shops are operating within the city limits. On Tuesday, the mayor said the city now knows of least 60 and has received complaints on 80 locations.

“The operations that are now open and operating in the city of Tacoma without a state license are illegal — under state law, local law and federal law,” said City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli to a crowd of nearly 150 people, with more waiting in the hallway or in other waiting rooms for their turn to speak.

But several medical cannabis patients said they felt betrayed by I-502, because it now appears medical marijuana will become less available.

“If I had any idea passing 502 would undermine my access to safe, effective medicine, I never would have voted for it,” said Cara Zemanek.

Some business owners also complained that they tried to follow the rules, any rules, but the city often refused to issue business licenses and permits.

Alex Cooley, a vice president for Solstice Grown, a medical cannabis production facility in Seattle, said the Legislature has “failed to act year after year after year.”

Business operators have “been there begging for regulation of our industry and begging for guidelines, begging for a way to provide for the sick and the dying,” Cooley said. “There are people attempting to follow the rules that do not exist.”

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