Pubdate: Thu, 16 Jun 2016
Source: Herald, The (Everett, WA)
Copyright: 2016 Associated Press
Author: Gene Johnson, Associated Press


SEATTLE (AP) - With a deadline looming for the merging of 
Washington's recreational and medical marijuana markets, cities 
around the state are warning unlicensed pot dispensaries to close up shop.

July 1 marks the date when, after nearly two decades of confusion 
about the status of medical marijuana, the industry becomes regulated 
for the first time. Hundreds of pot shop workers are being certified 
as medical marijuana consultants, the Department of Health is 
preparing a voluntary registry of patients, and the Liquor and 
Cannabis Board has been granting endorsements enabling recreational 
marijuana stores to sell for medical use.

As part of the transition, required under the Cannabis Patient 
Protection Act passed by the Legislature last year, unlicensed 
dispensaries that proliferated in the past decade need to shut down, 
as do the large-scale growing cooperatives that supplied them, to 
eliminate competition with Washington's pioneering legal marijuana 
law, Initiative 502, approved by voters in 2012.

It's unclear how many unlicensed dispensaries remain open statewide. 
In Thurston County, Sheriff John Snaza and a county prosecutor are 
visiting each dispensary to personally inform them of the expectation 
that they close by July 1 unless they have a state license.

"We had more than 100 stores in the city last year," said Seattle 
deputy city attorney John Schochet. "We sent letters to the ones that 
didn't appear to have any eligibility for Initiative 502 licenses, to 
tell them to close. Most of them have at this point, but we have a 
few that remain open. We're going to be communicating with them and 
letting them know that June 30 is going to have to be their last day 
in existence."

During a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Liquor and 
Cannabis Board officials said their goal is to have the unlicensed 
businesses close voluntarily, but their enforcement staff is prepared 
to help local police and prosecutors take additional steps if 
necessary. The shops could see civil or criminal enforcement, ranging 
from city-level sanctions or the seizure of inventory to drug 
distribution charges.

"We actually have rules in place that allow for seizure and 
destruction of product ... that is not identified within our 
traceability system," said the board's enforcement chief, Justin 
Nordhorn. "The intent of that particular rule is not to clog up 
criminal courts and not to necessarily take criminal action against 
everybody that's continuing to run a dispensary, but to ... dry up 
the supply for those particular stores."

Washington in 1998 became one of the first states to approve the use 
of marijuana as medicine, but the initiative passed by voters did not 
allow commercial sales. Instead, patients had to grow the marijuana 
for themselves or designate someone to grow it for them. The measure 
did not prohibit patients from pooling their resources together to 
have large collective gardens on a single property, which police 
sometimes raided.

After I-502 passed, lawmakers had a financial incentive to reduce 
competition with the state's recreational market, and they did so 
last year. The Liquor and Cannabis Board decided to boost the maximum 
number of licensed pot shops statewide from 334 to 556 to accommodate 
the medical market, and it adopted a merit system for helping decide 
who got the additional licenses.

So far, the liquor board has issued medical endorsements to 317 
stores, though it's unclear how many of them will be ready to serve 
patients by July 1. Patients are also allowed to grow marijuana at 
home or join a small cooperative, limited to four patients.

Some medical marijuana advocates say the merit system didn't work as 
intended, leaving some longstanding and wellmeaning dispensaries 
without a license even as other relatively new businesses were 
approved. Several have sued the liquor board after their efforts to 
be licensed were rejected. Among them was John Davis, who has run a 
Seattle dispensary for the past five years and has long advocated for 
medical marijuana regulations.

"I'm trying to get whatever relief I can through the administrative 
system, through the superior court, I'm trying to do whatever I can, 
but I've got to close my doors at midnight on July 1," he said. "What 
else am I supposed to do?"
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom