Brad Palma, manager at Conscious Care Cooperative, holds up a bud of medical marijuana.
Getting a grasp on cannabis
Whether you like them or not, pot dispensaries are here to stay.
At least, that is the reasoning Councilmembers Sally Clark and Nick Licata are using as they continue work on legislation which would implement land use zoning regulations on cannabis facilities. They presented their idea at the Ballard District Council's October meeting.
“We have a population with real needs. We have people who want to start a legitimate business,” Clark said. “We have been having excessive conversation with people who are trying to start these businesses … they want to serve the public, they want to help people, but they also, basically, want to be businesspeople.”
The new zoning regulations come into response to a bill that the Washington State Legislature passed in 2011, ESSSB 5073, which altered State regulations to allow the growing and dispensing of medical marijuana, either by medical marijuana dispensaries or for permit-qualified patients. Medical marijuana is still considered an “illegal substance” under Federal law.
The councilmembers would not go into it at the meeting, but Gov. Christine Gregoire had vetoed many parts of the medical marijuana bill, effectively punching holes within the legislation.
One of those holes includes an unclear definition of how or where medical marijuana dispensaries can aggregate. Because there are no rules, dispensaries can technically aggregate under the same roof, sharing resources and staff and creating a much larger operation than really is allowed.
There is also no ruleset in place for where the dispensaries can go. The only loose regulation is a federal law saying dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a school or childcare facility will receive a harsher penalty.
Since the city council cannot legally change state law, they have opted to go another route: apply zoning laws to the medical marijuana dispensaries like they would any other business.
The zoning laws would place size restrictions on residential zones, neighborhood commercial 1 zones (generally small retail areas surrounded by residential zones) and certain special purpose zones possessing historical character, such as the Ballard Ave Landmarks District.
Licata said that what the legislation is essentially trying to do is “put some arms around it without going into the legal quagmire in whether city says marijuana is legal or not.”
This would be on top of the size restrictions already put in place by State law: No more than 15 plants per patient to a maximum of 45 plants; No more than 24 ounces per patient to a maximum of 72 ounces; No more cannabis products than could be made from 24 ounces per patient to a maximum of 72 ounces.
Medical marijuana dispensaries have been a subject of controversy ever since they began cropping up within the past few years. Proponents believe that medical marijuana can help with many ailments -- particularly those that involve lack of sleep, stomach problems or anxiousness -- that other pharmaceuticals have failed at relieving.
Brad Palma, of the dispensary Conscious Care Cooperative on NW Market St and 17th Ave NW, said he sees firsthand how medical marijuana helps his patients.
“I just see all of my patients get better and better every day, what ailments affect them,” he said. “They can finally sleep without having their mind on the pain”
He told the story about one patient he had, who weighed 280 pounds, would stumble and stammer after every word, and who was taking a cocktail of pharmaceutical pills to try and help him with his problems. With medical marijuana, Palma said, his speech got better and he was relieved enough to be able to work out and lose 40 pounds.
“The whole thing on how medical marijuana is illegal is based off ignorance,” Palma said. “How can you tell me this natural herb, this natural plant, is worse than that (pharmaceuticals)?”
But not all dispensaries are in it to help people, Palma said. When he worked at a medical marijuana dispensary in San Diego, Calif., he would see operations open and close on a whim, just to make money.
“You see people open up dispensaries for a couple months, they make a thousand bucks … and leave their patients without any help,” he said. “It’s messed up.”
Licata and Clark also talked about the problem at the Ballard District Council. By stepping up regulations, it is one thing they can help prevent from happening.
“There are people who are gaming the system, and in order to have a level playing field we want to define regulations,” Clark said.
Currently, there is no government institution in place to deal with unethical practices within the medical marijuana business. In order to make up for that, a group of 45 businesses within the field have banded together to form a governing arm, called the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, There Conscious Care Cooperative is part of that network.
“We are very much about wanting regulation and wanting control and wanting the rules,” said Greta Carter, a member of the coalition. “We have come together to create our own regulations and having a governing arm that goes out that tries to make everything we have mutually agreed to enacted on”
Any concerns about unethical practices can be directed to the coalition at email@example.com or (206) 466-1766. Their website can be found at www.ccsewa.org.
Many dispensaries have been on edge since the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has begun sending out letters in August prompting businesses within 1,000 feet of a school or childcare facility to shut down. In August, the letter was sent to 23 dispensaries, followed by three more a few weeks later, and three more just last week, making for a total of 29.
In San Diego, Palma saw a similar crackdown happen on a larger scale, when his and several other dispensaries were forced to close down. That’s when he moved up to Washington, to take a chance and start fresh at Conscious Care Cooperative, where he was able to quickly move through the ranks to become a manager.
Palma said Conscious Care Cooperative in Ballard has so far remained unaffected by the crackdown. He has not worried that the zoning regulations will shut down the business.
One more factor in the medical marijuana industry is I-502, a measure which would legalize marijuana should it pass in this November’s elections.
If the initiative passes, it could have a dramatic effect on the way marijuana is dispensed. However, Licata and Clark decided that they would move forward with cannabis zoning regulations either way, taking into account the idea that it would still apply.
In any case, despite the DEA, community concerns or I-502, there is one truth:
“There is a system in place that deals with medications is dispensed, and we need to deal with that,” Licata said.