Pubdate: Wed, 29 Jun 2016
Source: Seattle Weekly (WA)
Copyright: 2016 Village Voice Media
Author: Casey Jaywork


This Week, Hundreds of Marijuana Dispensaries Will Be Shuttered.

How did that happen?

The evening of November 6, 2012, will live long in the memories of 
many progressive Seattleites. It was a night of raucous celebration 
in the heart of Seattle as a singular mass of bodies danced at the 
corner of Pike Street and 10th Avenue.

In the tide of humanity, a middle-aged man with a gray beard and a 
plaid blue shirt sprayed the crowd around him with champagne.

People kissed and danced, screamed and cheered, laughed and exchanged 
high-fives. A Barack Obama impersonator made the rounds, allowing 
celebrants to take pictures beside him. Musicians with various horns 
crawled through the crowd as well, trumpeting their joy to the skies. 
The pungent scent of cannabis faded in and out.

The celebration was on account of three things: Barack Obama, gay 
marriage, and legal pot. On this election night, the nation's first 
African-American president had just won re-election, and Washington 
state voters had chosen, through ballot initiative, to legalize 
same-sex marriage and recreational cannabis.

Each of those victories would have been unthinkable even 10 years 
before, so it makes sense that people took to the streets to mark the occasion.

But not everyone was celebrating. While Washington's vote to legalize 
recreational marijuana-along with a similar measure in Colorado that 
passed on the same night-was a watershed moment in our country's 
retreat from the War on Drugs, it was also the beginning of the end 
of the state's medical-marijuana (MMJ) culture.

That culture had existed for 14 years, made legitimate by another 
unlikely political victory and fostered by the medical-marijuana 
dispensaries that dotted the state.

Those dispensaries were gray-market affairs, but the new recreational 
system of pot stores would be more regimented than a Marine on a 
diet. MMJ advocates warned that sooner or later the recreational 
system would replace the patchwork system of medical providers, 
potentially making it harder for patients to get their medicine. In 
2015, the state legislature proved them right by passing the Cannabis 
Patient Protection Act, or CaPPA, which grants a small minority of 
dispensaries I-502 licenses while requiring that the rest, at long 
last, close their doors.

"I like the part about nobody having their life fucked up," says 
lawyer and pot advocate Jeff Steinborn, looking back on I-502, which 
he opposed at the time. "I do not like the way the market's been 
controlled-they're regulating it like plutonium, with the result that 
it's really the province of the wealthy to get into this market.

"I don't like the prices I'm seeing, and I particularly do not like 
what's happened to the patients... . They're screwed.

If you're a real patient for whom this is a life-changing medicine, 
you probably can't afford it unless you hung onto your old 
connections, which has been my advice all along: 'Don't burn your 
connections, you're going to need him or her pretty soon.' "

For many, pretty soon is Friday, July 1. On that day, the vast 
majority of the state's dispensaries will be forced to turn out the 
neon marijuana light and close up shop, ending an era that helped 
thousands of patients, confounded many politicians, and launched the 
legalization movement.

But how did we get here?

Act 1

For nearly a century, the United States has waged a War on Drugs. By 
heavily penalizing the use or possession of street drugs, the federal 
government has excelled at frightening the mainstream and 
criminalizing people on the edge.

At the center of the War, both rhetorically and in practice, is 
cannabis, decried by federal authorities as a dangerous, highly 
addictive substance that inexorably leads to harder drugs and, 
ultimately, more crime.

In 1937, Congress effectively banned cannabis with the Marijuana Tax 
Act, and doubled down in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act, 
which includes cannabis in its most dangerous tier of drugs.

Officials claimed that these measures were undertaken in the interest 
of public health and safety, but that narrative has recently started 
to fray as historical documentation has shown that in both instances, 
drug prohibition was used by cynical officials both to target 
minorities and to justify expanded policing.

Even before those revelations, the War was facing growing resistance 
by a public that was seeing benefits in some of the drugs that were 
viewed as a scourge on our culture-in particular, cannabis.

In the words of journalist John Geluardi in Cannabiz: The Explosive 
Rise of the Medical Marijuana Industry, "While the Beats and hippies 
certainly popularized marijuana use, the medical-marijuana movement's 
direct precursor was San Francisco's gay-rights movement of the 1970s."

When AIDS began to decimate gay men in the 1980s, Geluardi says, the 
potheads among them treated the associated "wasting syndrome" with 
cannabis. In other words, they treated nausea with the munchies.

As a result, a generation of seasoned activists were ready and 
willing to push MMJ initiatives in the 1990s. Joining them was a 
generation of baby boomers who'd experimented with pot in college and 
were just reaching the age when they faced cancer (and chemotherapy), 
glaucoma, and other ailments that MMJ happens to alleviate.

In Washington state, the 1995 arrest of Joanna McKee was the match 
that lit the fuse toward legalization. McKee smoked cannabis, she 
told The Seattle Times, to assuage muscle spasms, migraines, and 
epilepsy from head and back injuries.

She shared her pot with patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and 
multiple sclerosis in a Bainbridge Island operation called Green 
Cross Patient Co-Op. The police busted her with more than 160 plants, 
but a judge let her off, ruling the search warrant had been invalid.

The same year, Tacoma attorney and terminal cancer patient Ralph 
Seeley convinced a Superior Court judge in Pierce County that doctors 
should be able to prescribe cannabis.

In 1997, Seeley watched the state Supreme Court overturn that 
decision and saw his own I-685, which would have decriminalized the 
medical use of cannabis and other Schedule I drugs, as well as 
paroling drug prisoners, fail at the ballot box.

One of Seeley's colleagues on I-685 was Dr. Rob Killian, who 
according to the Times prescribed MMJ to some of his hospice 
patients. After the failed drug-decriminalization initiative, he 
drafted another, eschewing prisoner paroles and concentrating only on 
decriminalizing medical cannabis among patients who indisputably 
needed it. Actually, "decriminalize" is a slight overstatement: This 
initiative, I-692, merely provided an "affirmative defense" doctors 
and patients could use in court.

That modest approach won I-692 the Times' editorial board's 
endorsement: "Should patients with terminal illnesses or debilitating 
pain be allowed to smoke marijuana prescribed by their doctors 
without fear of criminal prosecution? ... Voters should say yes to 
this responsible and compassionate measure that puts an intensely 
private medical decision in the hands of those who know what's best 
for their health: doctors and patients."

Of course, even as it won mainstream sympathy, pot for pain control 
was not without opposition. I-692's critics argued that because it 
decriminalized cannabis without creating a way to legally obtain the 
stuff, the initiative would open the door to dangerously unregulated 
medicine via the underground drug market.

In a guest editorial in the Times, No on I-692 campaign co-chair Dr. 
Susan Garcia-Swain wrote, "Those of us opposed to this initiative are 
not trying to be moral authoritarians. This is about public safety 
and ensuring protections against bad medicine ... The proposed 'cure' 
would be worse than the disease."

Despite such protests, the spectacle of suffering patients yearning 
for relief from their pain proved a compelling argument for 
Washington voters, who in 1998 approved I-692 by a wide margin. 
Seeley never saw those results.

He died just 10 months prior to the vote. [Ed. note: We still should 
parole drug prisoners.

Call it the Ralph Seeley Act.]

Act 2

The next major victory in the fight for medical-marijuana access came 
the following year when U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer, the 
highest-ranking federal prosecutor in western Washington, wrote a 
letter to Seattle police stating that she was not interested in 
prosecuting legitimate medical-marijuana patients, alleviating some 
fears of prosecution for what was and remains a federal crime.

In 2000, the Capitol Hill MMJ distributor Compassion in Action 
announced it would start giving out photo ID cards and create a 
24-hour phone line through which police could verify someone's 
patient status, though neither service had any legal weight.

Through the aughts, doctors' offices dedicated exclusively to 
providing MMJ approval notes-or "green cards," as they're 
colloquially known-appeared.

But there were problems.

Police kept arresting some patients and growers, in part because of 
the ambiguity in I-692 about how much cannabis patients could possess.

The law itself allowed for a "60-day supply," which depending on the 
user could mean anything from a few grams to several ounces or more. 
Another complication arose because I-692 didn't say anything about 
where MMJ patients could get their medicine, other than that a 
"designated caregiver" could assist them. According to High Times, 
this led to the proliferation of dispensaries where patients would 
come in, sign a form declaring one of the dispensary workers their 
designated caregiver, buy their pot (or rather, receive their pot 
free and then make a "donation" to the dispensary, so that neither 
was breaking federal law by buying or selling a controlled 
substance), and then in their next breath sign another note revoking 
the dispensary worker's status as their designated caregiver.

The next patient in line would step up to the counter, sign a note, 
etc. "This plainly illegal operation of dispensaries led to some 
raids and much anger from the medical activist community," writes 
reporter Russ Belville.

In response, state legislators passed SB 5073 in 2011, allowing 
"collective gardens for the purpose of producing, processing, 
transporting, and delivering cannabis for medical use." The bill 
capped collectives at 10 patients, 45 plants, and 72 ounces of 
cannabis each, and created a 15-day waiting period before a 
designated provider could switch patients.

The bill was also supposed to more clearly define dispensaries and 
create a registry of Washington MMJ patients, but under pressure from 
federal attorneys-who threatened in a letter that "state employees 
who conducted activities mandated by the Washington legislative 
proposals would not be immune from liability" to federal 
prosecution-Governor Christine Gregoire line-vetoed those sections of 
the bill. "I cannot disregard federal law on the chance that state 
employees will not be prosecuted," she said. "What would I say to 
them if they are?"

Insofar as it was meant to rein in revolving-door dispensaries, the 
partly gutted bill was a flop. Belville writes that dispensaries 
"switched from being 'providers for one patient at a time' to being 
'collective gardens for 10 patients at a time,' and continued 
operations as storefront dispensaries without missing a beat. When a 
patient comes in, he becomes Patient #1 in the collective, the 
existing patients slide down a slot in the list, and patient number 
10 is dropped from the collective."

But legislators' impotence at regulating MMJ was about to be 
obviated. The following November, Washington would vote to legalize 
recreational cannabis via I-502. As the Weekly's Nina Shapiro 
reported at the time ("Alison Holcomb: Pot Mama," Sept. 26, 2012), 
the woman who can take the most credit for I-502's passage is Alison 
Holcomb. A former law partner of Jeff Steinborn (the ornery pot 
lawyer quoted above), Holcomb worked on the 2003 campaign to make pot 
Seattle police's lowest priority.

A colleague in the ACLU recruited her to manage their cannabis 
project, and Holcomb in turn recruited travel guru Rick Steves to 
host the very-Seattle-titled TV segment "Marijuana: It's Time for a 

In 2010, writes Shapiro, Holcomb began planning for what became 
I-502. Earlier that year, she'd fallen out with Steinborn and other 
pot advocates who were running a broad drug-decriminalization 
initiative. Holcomb and the ACLU opposed it, believing it had zero 
chance of passing and would hurt more modest reform attempts.

As a result, Steinborn and company were absent from the conversation. 
In their place were national heavyweights in the cannabis-reform 
movement whom Holcomb courted with impressive polling data that 
showed that the ACLU's initiative could win. "It needed to look as 
much like a hard-alcohol model as possible," Holcomb told Shapiro, in 
order to win over mainstream voters who were used to thinking of 
booze as a safe drug.

Veteran activist Steve Sarich called I-502 a "Trojan horse." One of 
the proposed law's most objectionable aspects, Sarich said, was that 
anyone found with 5 nanograms of THC (the main active chemical in 
pot) in their bloodstream would be guilty of driving under the 
influence (DUI). The problem?

Because of the way THC is stored in the body, blood tests aren't a 
reliable way of checking whether someone is intoxicated. As NPR has 
reported, light users could pass the test even though they drove 
stoned, while a regular user could be completely sober but still test 
positive for THC. Others pointed to potential harm to the MMJ market.

In an editorial published on pot blog Toke of the Town, Ezra 
Eickmeyer of Safe Access Alliance warned that I-502 would increase 
the cost of MMJ, reduce access to MMJ retailers, put users under 21 
years of age at risk of prosecution, and drive patients to the black 
market. "In trying too hard to appease law enforcement and other 
opponents of legalization," he wrote, "I-502 creates a list of 
brand-new threats to medical-cannabis patients and providers."

During their campaign, proponents of recreational legalization 
emphasized that I-502 "does not change the Washington State Medical 
Use of Cannabis Act," in the words of their campaign website.

And that was true: I-502 made no mention of medical marijuana.

On the other hand, once I-502 passed, anytime pot was sold outside of 
an I-502 store, the state coffers would forgo precious tax revenue.

And don't forget the feds, whose potential raids hung over the heads 
of state leaders like the sword of Damocles. In short, once 
Washington had a well-defined, heavily regulated 
recreational-marijuana market, it was only a matter of time before 
state legislators decided to fold existing MMJ dispensaries-not quite 
legal, and barely regulated-into I-502.

Voters didn't seem to mind. I-502 passed in Washington state by an 11 
percent margin, and the party began.

Act 3

It would be one thingif moving medical into the recreational system 
simply meant that dispensaries would have to pay more taxes and file 
more paperwork.

But the facts on the ground presented a whole other existential 
dilemma for the medical-marijuana community.

There are, after all, far more dispensaries than I-502 licenses.

After the passage of the CaPPA last year, 222 dispensaries were 
granted licenses to sell, bringing the statewide total number of 
I-502 stores to 556. As for the other 1,812 dispensaries who also 
applied to become I-502 stores?

Tough luck.

"These stores are being forced to simply shut their doors," says MMJ 
advocate Kari Boiter. "We're putting a whole lot of people out of work."

Contrasted against the freewheeling culture of dispensaries-which 
range from stylish urban boutiques to shady backroom drug markets-the 
rigorous regulations for recreational reefer are positively 
militaristic. I-502 divides the pot economy into three parts: 
producers (pot farms), processors (everything after curing and before 
sale), and distributors (pot shops). You can own licenses for 
producing and processing or for retail, but not both. All facilities 
must track their cannabis as it moves toward the consumer and destroy 
any "waste product." Before receiving a license, owners, partners, 
and investors must pass a financial and/or criminal background check. 
The same applies to all members of a nonprofit.

People convicted of misdemeanors or felonies must wait a certain 
number of years before they can own any part of an I-502 store, 
according to a Byzantine formula that assigns a point value to 
different types of crimes and other variables.

Having a bad tax record or a history of administrative violations can 
also keep you from an I-502 license.

But the first I-502 stores didn't open until the summer of 2014, more 
than a year after cannabis was formally legalized.

And pretty much anyone could still open a dispensary under the 
auspices of the 2011 collective garden legislation.

Guess what happened.

In this vacuum of legal cannabis, ostensibly "medical" marijuana 
dispensaries proliferated like, well, weeds.

 From the U District to SoDo and beyond, green crosses popped up 
along storefronts and sidewalks like tribbles filling the USS 
Enterprise. In his book Weed the People: The Future of Legal 
Marijuana in America, journalist Bruce Barcott estimates that during 
the first year of legalization in 2013, Seattle alone housed more 
than 300 MMJ dispensaries and delivery services, ranging from 
uber-professional to uber-sketchy. While the Seattle mayor's office's 
estimate is much lower, it similarly says that the total number of 
dispensaries in the city doubled after legalization at the end of 2012.

All this didn't escape the notice of state legislators-nor did the 
forgone tax revenue lost to gray-market dispensaries. In 2015, the 
subset of unlicensed MMJ dispensaries that do pay regular business 
taxes did $109 million in sales, equal to about one-third of the 
total annual sales at I-502 stores.

The state's MMJ economy is likely bigger than that, even, since many 
businesses don't pay taxes so that federal police won't identify 
them. In response, the Washington legislature passed CaPPA in 2015, 
folding the unregulated MMJ market into I-502.

The green gold rush was so dramatic that local authorities in 
Seattle, Tacoma, and King County all began independently shuttering 
dispensaries, jumping ahead of state authorities to do so. Last 
summer, after the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) announced 
that it would require all pot shops to have I-502 licenses by July 
2016, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray upped the ante by announcing his plan 
to close about 60 local dispensaries ahead of time. "We're 
strengthening the recreational-marijuana market and creating safer, 
more consistent access for those who rely on medicinal products," 
Murray said in a press release.

While the passage of CaPPA was the death knell of medical marijuana 
as it has existed in Washington since 1998, remnants of the MMJ 
market will remain.

Small collectives are still allowed to operate if they're at least a 
mile from an I-502 store, so that patients won't have to travel too 
far for their medicine, and patients can get a partial tax break if 
they voluntarily register with the state.

Plus there are the 222 dispensaries that received licenses.

But just as legalization jolted the pot economy into a state of 
frenzied growth, regulation is culling most of the market.

It's true that there are hundreds of I-502 stores across the state to 
choose from, and many of them offer some selection of medically 
oriented cannabis, such as strains high in CBD (which assuages body 
pain) and low in THC (which gets you high). But it's also true that 
the process of reining in the pot market-call it the taming of the 
Wild Pacific Northwest-has dramatically reduced the number of MMJ 
sellers on the market.

That creates a risk for patients, whose highly specific cannabis 
needs must now compete with the preferences of more numerous 
recreational users in a market with an arbitrarily limited supply of 
I-502 licenses.

Steinborn, our irascible pot advocate, opposed I-502 when it was on 
the ballot, but looking back he has a balanced assessment of how 
things shook out. "It's a tough one," he says. "Thousands and 
thousands of people have had their lives not fucked up, because 
marijuana's no longer illegal in Washington ... A lot of suffering 
and misery has been saved by this law being passed."

On the other hand, he continues, "my bitch about it was that 
[legalization was] a wave rolling in from the ocean.

It wasn't going to be stopped.

We didn't have to make so many compromises to get legalization to pass."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom