On a Monday afternoon, Jeremy Kaufman and Ben Reagan usher clients into the back room of their tiny office in Georgetown, to a table with four small pot plants and 12 jars of pot. The jars are attached to a lazy-Susan-like contraption that you spin around to see and smell the samples. Grams cost $10.
There's a similar place a mile north in Sodo. The SensAble Patient Network keeps a row of fat mason jars behind the counter (inside the jars, the "Lime Green" variety smells like an Otter Pop and the "Mr. Clean" smells like Pine-Sol), where pot ranges from $8 to $12 a gram for the group's 300 members. And up in Lake City, the Conscious Care Cooperative displays a glass case, chock full of pot.
These outlets are increasingly common. Over the past several months, a bold new generation of medical marijuana dispensaries resembling clinics and offices are proliferating in Seattle—even though they don't quite square with state law. After years of a below-the-radar movement, medical marijuana activists are essentially daring the law to evolve to keep up with them. And more remarkable, their allies in Olympia and prosecutors in King County are trying to make these dispensaries legit.
But it was not like this even a year ago. These groups are thriving in response to more lenient federal enforcement, gray areas in state law, and an uptick in the number of legal marijuana consumers.
For instance, Kaufman and Reagan's dispensary, called the Center for Palliative Care (C.P.C.), has racked up 100 clients since opening in September. "We've been adding new clients every other day," Reagan says. "Maybe more during the holidays." Their specialty: just the right strain of cannabis to treat specific conditions (some pot is better for pain; some helps restore appetite, Kaufman says).
They're not trying to hide, either. They're advertising. In The Stranger, the Seattle Weekly, and the Little Nickel, color ads run in every issue for about a dozen of these businesses in Seattle and its suburbs. Other ads promote doctors who authorize medical marijuana use, drivers who deliver pot to your door, and bakers selling "edibles" (the term for pot-infused foods like cookies and butter).
The dispensaries are also multiplying outside liberal Seattle. "We have 54 of them on our list from Washington State," states the website THClist.com, "and it's growing every day!" Over at PotLocator.com, a Google map shows you which pot shop is closest to you.
Part of the shift is not just the growing number of dispensaries, a few of which have been around for years, but their unbridled marketing. Niche websites, newspapers, and glossy brochures like Weedlistwa.com display high-resolution photos of the pot in stock so you can compare dispensaries and see which has the best smoke in town.
So what's creating this boom, particularly while every other local industry seems to be in decline?
Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington State for 12 years, but it was a mostly invisible trade. Unlike California, where dispensaries are legal under state law, Washington's vague law provides weak legal protections. Even patients with a physician's authorization who comply with the law can be arrested, because the state only allows a defense in court, so anyone growing or selling medical pot has tried to fly below the radar.
Amid this business boom, those laws remain intact. King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg, who handles all cases for marijuana sales in the county, says, "I think any reading of the present Washington law would not lend support to the model of a dispensary."
Indeed, the voter-approved Medical Use of Marijuana Act only goes so far, allowing a patient (again, with a doctor's note) to grow up to 15 plants and possess up to 24 ounces of dried pot. That patient can designate one person as his or her grower or provider. But no provision exists to run a dispensary, as many of them do, for hundreds of clients. (Some argue that patients can designate a dispensary as their care provider for a few minutes during a transaction; Satterberg counters that that interpretation "renders meaningless the language of the statute.")
"But the problem is that state law does not say how qualifying patients are supposed to get their marijuana," acknowledges Ian Goodhew, the deputy chief of staff in Satterberg's office. "It is just leaving them in the lurch."
In other words, the prosecutors get it. Without dispensaries, truly sick patients who qualify under the law—people with conditions including cancer, HIV, intractable pain, and multiple sclerosis—simply can't find quick access to marijuana to control pain and nausea. And despite all the flashy ads, the new stores, and the websites, cops aren't busting these groups and referring cases to prosecutors, Satterberg says.
"We don't have the law enforcement or the investigative resources to look through the back pages of The Stranger and begin investigations based on advertisements," Satterberg says.
"As long as the cooperatives are acting in a reasonably professional manner, you're not seeing law enforcement coming after them," reckons Philip Dawdy, spokesman for the Washington Cannabis Association (WCA). "They see the law is gray, and they want clarification."
Meanwhile, Dawdy's group is helping to establish legal clarity that's lacking by hiring a lobbyist to push a bill in Olympia. In mid-October, several marijuana outlets ponied up $1,200 to $5,000 each to form the WCA—thereby establishing a bona fide trade association.
A trade association for pot?
It may seem a little premature—considering the trade isn't quite legal—but the time is right for the state of Washington. On December 10, the state's Department of Revenue sent a letter to 90 businesses with "marijuana" in their name, stating, "All medical marijuana dispensaries are required to collect and remit retail sales tax."
In other words, the state recognizes medical marijuana dispensaries as part of the tax base—a de facto legal business.
"You're seeing the initial maturation of an industry," explains Dawdy.
Other than the state's endorsement, the confidence found in the proprietors of these new upstarts—confidence that they're not going to be busted—seems to stem from economic and political shifts. "Barack Obama is happening," Dawdy says. Last year, under the new presidential administration, U.S. attorney general Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors to leave alone medical marijuana dispensaries and patients complying with state law. Okay, our law doesn't allow dispensaries, Dawdy acknowledges, "but we don't have a state law that doesn't allow co-ops and dispensaries."
An alternative theory about the courage to set up shop: More people can legally smoke pot now. In addition to the dispensaries, more doctors are authorizing medical marijuana. "Doctors available Monday–Friday, walk-ins welcome," says an ad for the Washington State Cannabis Group on Aurora Avenue North. All those new patients "don't want to go to the black market," says Cy at the dispensary in Sodo, who declined to give his last name. "We are just filling that demand."
In a sort of political synergy, the more emboldened activists and entrepreneurs become, the easier it becomes to change the law, says Ben Livingston, a leader of the Cannabis Defense Coalition (which is an advocacy group, not a dispensary). "The increase in the number of people taking the risk comes with more openness, a higher level of comfort, and greater discussion," he says. But Livingston also explains that the greatest risks for growers and dispensaries are evident: A rash of robberies this month on grow houses and a recent raid from the Seattle Police Department on a patient with only two plants illustrate it's hardly a risk-free venture.
"Am I worried about getting robbed?" asks Kaufman. "Yes. Am I worried about cops knocking down my door? Yes. But not enough to stop doing what I'm doing. I just understand that until people like me stand up, nothing is going to change."
And one crowd reluctant to embrace change, for years, has been the state legislature. In the first week of January, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36, Queen Anne and Ballard) will introduce a sweeping bill that will, among other things, permit dispensaries, allow cooperative grows, and provide protection from arrest for patients who have a doctor's authorization.
It may seem like a long shot, but Kohl-Welles has laid groundwork for this bill for years, she says. She pushed through minor tweaks to the state's medical marijuana law in 2007 and 2010. In her arsenal for January, she believes, will be key law enforcement backing for the bill that includes a voluntary registry of patients (this allows cops to find out if a person is a legal patient before making an arrest or raiding a home, which police and prosecutors have been seeking).
For his part, King County prosecutor Satterberg says he will advocate within the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys—one of Olympia's more powerful lobbies—to support the bill. "I think it would be better to have them licensed and regulated," he says.
But if the bill passes or dies, the emboldened Seattle marijuana culture is just ramping up. "I think the visibility is going to continue to increase," Kohl-Welles says. "The stigmatization of marijuana is being reduced and eventually ending."