Tacoma is moving forward with its plans to shut down unlicensed marijuana shops operating in the city, but at least a dozen businesses will get a court-ordered reprieve.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson granted a temporary injunction sought Monday by 12 medical-marijuana sellers. That will give the courts more time to sort out competing arguments about whether the stores are operating legally.
More stores could seek the same protection as they receive formal notice from Tacoma to close immediately. City employees started hand-delivering notices Monday, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said, with more to follow.
The warnings to unlicensed stores come as the state Liquor and Cannabis Board has begun accepting applications for its second round of retail marijuana licenses. The board is implementing this year’s state law that aimed to merge the medical and recreational systems and required unlicensed shops to close by July 1.
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The suing Tacoma businesses comply with the law as it stands until the systems are combined next summer, said their attorney, Jay Berneburg. Their workers verify that patients have the proper identification and medical authorization for marijuana, unlike some competitors, he said.
“My clients are the good guys that are following state law, that are following city law,” Berneburg said. “We’re digging in. My clients are going to fight.”
The state law that is on its way out allows 10 patients to join together in a collective garden. Unlicensed businesses have interpreted that to mean they can operate as storefronts by having hundreds or thousands of customers cycle through 10 membership slots.
Pauli disputed that the shops in the court case are legal under the expiring state law.
“It’s the city’s position that they aren’t collective gardens,” Pauli said, declining to elaborate on the city’s legal arguments.
Tacoma has struggled with what to do about unlicensed stores for years, amid inaction at the state level.
The city tried to crack down before changing course to let shops remain open as long as they stayed free of noise, smell and other nuisance violations. Last December, the City Council sought to shut stores down but then held off while the Legislature finally came to agreement on the issue.
The latest city approach involved notifying more than 60 unlicensed stores that they must shut down. Other than about 10 stores that have been in operation since before 2013 with a history of paying taxes and fees and maintaining business licenses, the stores were told to shut down by October.
Because some stores received more time, Berneburg argues the city is not applying the law equally.
The city says it is trying to mirror what it expects will be the cannabis board’s priorities for handing out new licenses and responding to worries from patients about losing access to marijuana.
The state board has already licensed at least seven Tacoma marijuana stores. Those businesses requested recreational pot licenses during the state’s 2013 round of applications.