Since recreational weed became legal in Washington State last year, 15 recreational marijuana shops have opened in Seattle. But unless you own a house, you probably have no legal place to smoke weed.
It's a problem that Seattle's pot-loving city attorney has hoped to address. "Single-family homeowners have a legal place to consume marijuana; others, however, such as out-of-town visitors, the homeless, and renters and condominium owners whose buildings do not permit marijuana use, have fewer options," Pete Holmes wrote in a policy paper on marijuana issued in January. "Enforcement against public marijuana use will be more effective if people have alternative locations to use marijuana legally."
Mike McKenney thought he had an answer when he conceived of Zero, Seattle's first cannabis cafe. From the get-go, McKenney knew he'd have to overcome some legal challenges. For starters, smoking indoors is illegal, so McKenney decided to allow only vaporizing. The club, located in Sodo, would be strictly BYOW and would sell only snacks and nonalcoholic beverages.
But in late June—when build-out was finished, permits were in hand, and coolers were stocked with frozen, chocolate-covered, logo-branded Ritz peanut-butter sandwiches—the state legislature decided to make it a class C felony to "conduct or maintain a marijuana club." Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill into law on June 30, forcing the Zero crew to postpone the opening.
In September, however, McKenney decided to go ahead and open the business, hoping that his almost religious compliance with code and regulation would protect it. According to McKenney, the city's Joint Enforcement Team (JET)—a group consisting of representatives from the city's police, fire, finance, public health, and administrative departments that does compliance checks on bars and clubs—dropped by twice to check them out with no incident. McKenney said he saw the visits as the city's way of saying, "As long as you have all your ducks in a row, there's not a problem."
And they were. McKenney said they used a sophisticated ID scanner, obtained all necessary permits and applicable licenses, and paid all their taxes. Any leftover weed was mixed with paint at closing time to render it unusable—to comply with I-502's strict seed-to-sale traceability requirements.
But no amount of compliance could help them avoid state law. David Mendoza, the mayor's policy adviser on marijuana, and a representative from the city attorney's office met with Zero's owners on October 7 to inform them that they would have to immediately stop public consumption of marijuana on the premises.
"It's pretty black and white—it's a felony, it's not allowed," said Mendoza, when I spoke with him later that day.
McKenney said he'd received a tacit go-ahead from the city, though he wouldn't say from whom. Asked about that wink and nudge, Mendoza characterized it as a misinterpretation of the city's position. As for the JET inspections, Mendoza told me that the inspectors never saw marijuana being used. If they had, he said, they would have been forced to issue a citation for operating a marijuana business without the city's special marijuana license.
Though the city brought down the hammer, it did so reluctantly. "We don't think they were doing anything shady," said Mendoza. "They've been very up front with us."
Deputy City Attorney John Schochet said, "Pete [Holmes] has long been supportive of having legal, licensed, and regulated venues for smoking legal marijuana. In the meantime, it's pretty clearly illegal under state law." He added that shutting down Zero was necessary to show Olympia that the city can effectively regulate marijuana, and to give the city attorney's office a better platform from which to lobby for a change in state law.
McKenney said Zero followed the guidelines for pot clubs that Holmes had issued in January. But unfortunately for him—and everyone in possession of legal weed with no legal place to smoke it—those guidelines were only recommendations, not law.
Recently I stopped by Zero to get McKenney's reaction to the bad news. Signs were already up in the window announcing their closure due to "unforeseen circumstances." Though McKenney knew Zero was the proverbial canary in the mine shaft, he said he still felt blindsided. "If people had complaints about us, we never heard them. Most of the time what we heard was 'Thank you for doing this.'"
He walked me outside, and as we chatted on the sidewalk, a woman stopped to ask us where she could buy pot. We pointed her to Seattle Cannabis Company, just down the road. Later, I saw the same woman duck into a parking lot behind a bridal store, look around furtively, and light up a joint.