As recently as March, about 47 dispensaries in Spokane were providing marijuana to patients who were allowed to use the drug under a physician's care, says defense attorney Douglas Hiatt. Like similar outlets in Seattle and across Washington, the dispensaries have operated in a legal gray area of the state medical marijuana law passed in 1998. But after Governor Chris Gregoire vetoed core sections of a new bill intended to provide more legal protections to patients and their caregivers—and after three federal raids on Spokane dispensaries last week—the number of dispensaries has plummeted from 47 to 2.
"I've had people calling me all weekend and asking, 'Should I close?'" says Hiatt. "And I say, 'Yeah, I don't see any way to stay open.'"
Meanwhile in Seattle, an estimated 75 dispensaries are in operation, says Ben Livingston, a board member of the Cannabis Defense Coalition. "A couple have closed, and there will be a hell of a lot more closing."
The shutdowns result, ironically, from a bill in the state legislature that was intended to create the most robust protections for medical-marijuana patients in the country. It would have licensed dispensaries, permitted cultivation, and provided arrest protection for authorized patients. But Gregoire—raising an argument widely rebuked as specious by law scholars, defense attorneys, and Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes—vetoed most of that bill on April 29, claiming that state employees could be federally prosecuted for issuing the licenses. The resulting Swiss cheese law actually undermines the few protections patients had under the law passed 13 years ago.
The remaining tangle is "worse for patients, cities, and counties" than it was before, says state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36), the bill's prime sponsor.
Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, agrees: "We are even in more flux than before this bill was initiated and passed."
Lawmakers in Olympia are scrambling to draft a new bill that fixes some of the problems before a special legislative session ends later this month. But many activists—including Livingston and Hiatt—believe that portions are unfixable, given that police are lobbying against dispensaries altogether. As a result, many patients and caregivers could permanently lose the defense in court they used to have. For instance, the new patchwork of laws mandates that a person could serve as a care provider for only one new patient every 15 days (an ambiguity in the old law lets dispensaries serve several patients a day, one patient at a time).
Lonnie Phillips, owner of Seattle Alternative Medicine Collective on Aurora Avenue North, worries that he may have to shut down and that patients too ill to cultivate their own marijuana to treat cancer, HIV, and other ailments "aren't going to be able to get the access that they need."
What could happen next?
"I would expect a dozen or more federal raids coordinated by the US Attorney's Office in our state," says Livingston. Federal prosecutors said in 2009 that they wouldn't target dispensaries in compliance with state law. Lacking a law in Washington to bring them into compliance (due to Gregoire's veto), the dispensaries here are all fair game.
Others believe cities around the state will pass dispensary moratoriums. David Grant, spokesman for the Bellevue City Council, says, "I have heard the m word bandied about." The Tacoma City Council has been considering a similar prohibition.
"If those other cities have moratoriums, everyone is going to come here to Seattle," says Cannabis Defense Coalition director Rachel Kurtz.
It's unclear if patients or caregivers would enjoy more legal protection clustered in Seattle, where officials and prosecutors are more sympathetic. Unless the legislature moves in the next few weeks to allow local governments to pass their own regulations, Goodhew says King County prosecutors may lack the wiggle room to ignore dispensary operators.
Hiatt says he's running out of legal options to defend clients. "There's nothing else we can do. This thing is a disaster. Pushing the goddamn bill through, putting it on the governor's desk, and then daring her to sign it—someone who is not running and has got nothing to lose—was just an idiotic idea."