Pubdate: Sun, 29 May 2011
Source: Bellingham Herald (WA)
Copyright: 2011 Bellingham Herald
Author: Rob Carson, Staff Writer


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

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

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

The federal government does not accept the concept of "medical

"We're a little worried," said Nathan Harris, manager of Northwest
Best Alternative Medicine, a block uphill from Tacoma Cross, on Market

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

"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

"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

"Dispensaries are not illegal," he said. "They are not going

"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

"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

All the convoluted legal arguments miss the point, he

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

"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."
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.