Pubdate: Sun, 29 May 2011 Source: Bellingham Herald (WA) Copyright: 2011 Bellingham Herald Contact: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/43 Author: Rob Carson, Staff Writer MEDICAL MARIJUANA LAW CREATES UNCERTAINTY FOR DISPENSARIES Business was booming last week at the Tacoma Cross marijuana dispensary, despite changes in state law that could soon put it and other Washington cannabis purveyors out of business. Shortly before noon Thursday, the inner sanctum in the downtown dispensary on Commerce Street already had a capacity crowd of 30 clients. Whenever the door marked "Members Only" opened, a blast of humid air rushed out, carrying loud voices, laughter and the sharp, sweet smell of marijuana. "We're completely legal here," said Ashley Byrd, Tacoma Cross' manager. "We're staying open until we get shut down." The Tacoma dispensary -- one of at least 30 operating in the city -- has 4,000 registered members, Byrd said. And in spite of a legislative session that threw the state's marijuana supply business into disarray, Tacoma Cross' backers are so confident, they are opening outlets in Seattle and Lacey. "I'm always positive," Byrd said. "The glass is always half full for me, not half empty." Other dispensary managers are not feeling so confident. The fine print After Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed large chunks of a bill intended to clarify the state's medical marijuana muddle, what remained of the law was in tatters. Definitions in the original law that medical marijuana supporters used to justify dispensaries were removed by legislators who thought they would be replacing them with a blueprint for a state-regulated supply and distribution system. Old language referring to "designated providers" who provided cannabis to "only one patient at any one time" disappeared, taking one of the dispensaries' main claims for legitimacy with them. Attorneys for dispensaries had argued that the phrase "at any one time" could mean as little as the few seconds it takes to hand over marijuana to a patient and did not necessarily mean a lasting personal commitment. Section 404 of the new law, which was signed by the governor, puts an end to that argument. It states that a designated provider "may not begin serving as a designated provider to a different qualifying patient until 15 days have elapsed from the date the last qualifying patient designated him or her to serve as a provider." Surviving sections of the new law refer to "licensed producer," "licensed processor" and "licensed dispenser," but the governor vetoed the sections that defined and set forth how the entities would be established. Gregoire explained her veto by saying that requiring state agencies to regulate the dispensaries put them at risk of federal prosecution -- even though that has not been a priority for the current administration. The federal government does not accept the concept of "medical marijuana." "We're a little worried," said Nathan Harris, manager of Northwest Best Alternative Medicine, a block uphill from Tacoma Cross, on Market Street. Harris said he closely followed the legislative process this year, but still doesn't know what to expect. "If the law says we have to close, we'll close," he said. "We're not trying to be a vigilante or anything. To tell the truth, I'm a little confused about what's going on right now." Harris is not alone. What's next? The legislative changes left cities, counties and law enforcement officials throughout the state scratching their heads over what happens next. In Tacoma, which issued business licenses to dispensaries, then revoked them, then put the decision of legality on hold while waiting for clarity from the Legislature, there now is more uncertainty than ever. "We're not sure yet what's going to happen," city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said. "We're going to be in the process of seeing how those changes that were approved by the governor impact the city's assessment of the situation. Then we'll take a look at whether we need to do some sort of local jurisdictional legislation or whether dispensaries are just illegal." "Those discussions are under way," he added. "We should have a better assessment of that soon." Appeals filed by Tacoma dispensaries who had their licenses lifted were put on hold until July 25, when a conference is scheduled among the dispensary owners, their attorneys and a hearing examiner. The Police Department continues to investigate dispensaries when complaints are raised about criminal activity in the shops, TPD spokesman Mark Fulghum said. Dispensaries 'illegal' Meanwhile, city staff members and legal advisers are poring over the rewritten law. According to Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, there is no uncertainty. "All the prosecutors I've spoken with and all defense attorneys I've spoken with agree that with the signing of Section 404, the dispensary model is illegal," Lindquist said. "Because it's now clear that the dispensary model is illegal, we're likely to begin by issuing warning letters to the dispensaries and alert them to the change in the law." Jay Berneburg, a Tacoma attorney who says he represents 17 dispensaries -- 13 of them in Tacoma -- agrees that the designated provider justification for dispensaries no longer works. But he vehemently rejects the idea that the law prohibits them. "Dispensaries are not illegal," he said. "They are not going anywhere." "The governor did not outlaw dispensaries," he said. "The governor declined to regulate dispensaries." Berneburg bases his dispensary defense on ambiguity in the original law. It authorized medical marijuana for qualified patients but didn't say where they were supposed to get it, other than growing their own. Some patients are too sick or otherwise unable to cultivate plants, Berneburg noted. "What did the Legislature intend?" he said. "That people get their medicine somewhere." Nothing in the law prohibits patients who have excess marijuana from providing it to other patients who need it, he said. A dispensary merely facilitates that exchange, Berneburg said. "They provide a nice safe place for this to occur," he said. "They're surplus exchanges." 'No matter who sells' In the lobby of Northwest Best, marijuana patient Mac McCloud leaned back in a comfortable chair and chatted, having just received his latest supply of marijuana meds. McCloud, 56, of Yelm, said he qualified as a medical marijuana patient because he hurt his knees working in the woods and suffers chronic pain. All the convoluted legal arguments miss the point, he said. He's been smoking marijuana for 40 years, he said, and doesn't see himself quitting anytime soon. "People are going to smoke, no matter who sells it," McCloud said. "If they close these dispensaries, the people that sell illegal drugs are going to be happy about it," he said. "The Mexican mafia will just make more money, because that's where most of these drugs are coming from. "If we close them, I just think we're stepping on private business," he said. "We're not supposed to do that here. This is America." - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.