The news came during the final minutes of a two-hour city council meeting, after most people had trickled out of the room. A handful of PowerPoint slides made it plain: Mayor Ed Murray is going after marijuana.
Apparently, members of Murray's staff have spent the winter working on new rules for medical marijuana providers and in the process found a target in pot couriers. The administration has now directed the Seattle Police Department to take aim at those delivery services—yes, even the ones that require clients to have medical authorization—even though, until now, pot deliverers have enjoyed the luxury of operating and advertising openly without much attention from law enforcement.
"The Stranger—you can open that up and find seven or 10 business providing those services any day of the week," David Mendoza, a policy advisor in the mayor's office, said at the December 10 council meeting. "There's no provision for them. We feel we should close them down."
The moment marked a significant policy shift, because Seattle has long been a case study in what happens when law enforcement sees marijuana and looks the other way. Before Washington State law ever allowed us all to buy an ounce legally, Seattle voters approved an initiative in 2003 that said arresting adults for pot should be law enforcement's lowest priority.
"Shouldn't our police be allowed to focus on protecting us against serious and violent crime?" the "Yes" camp asked at the time. "And shouldn't our limited and expensive jail space be reserved for real criminals who commit serious or violent crimes?"
While the mayor still isn't going after the people buying the pot, he's targeting what seems like a pretty low-level pot crime. What gives?
It turns out the drug's new aboveboard status is exactly what's drawing new attention to those selling it the old-fashioned way.
"Delivery services don't have the same level of oversight the community expects," says Jason Kelly, a spokesperson for the mayor, pointing to the exhaustive regulations on licensed I-502 stores, from testing for potency to mandated security cameras.
On top of that, guidelines from the Feds outline certain priorities, like keeping marijuana away from kids—and those priorities must be met to keep federal agents out of our pot legalization experiment. As long as local governments regulate pot businesses in a way that addresses those federal priorities, interference is unlikely. But, Kelly argues, if illegal businesses are allowed to skate by, the Feds could decide to raid the whole system, putting even the rule-followers at risk.
When asked about that 2003 voter-approved initiative, Kelly says simply that that was meant to target adult use and possession. Marijuana sales—which without a state license are felonies—are still fair game.
Delivery services are a threat to the legal industry's bottom line, too.
"It's straight-up illegal competition," says Ian Eisenberg, the owner of Uncle Ike's, one of the city's recreational stores. "It's straight-up black market."
Shortage issues in the recreational industry are waning, bringing prices down, Eisenberg says, but even if the state's increased legal-weed supply continues to lead to lower legal-weed prices, businesses like his will never be able to offer the lowest possible price unless someone stems the growth of black-market delivery services and medical shops that are willing to sell to people without a doctor's recommendation.
Plus, Eisenberg added about his competitors, "There is no protection for minors. The pot they sell is untested, it's dangerous, it's a public health hazard."
"We're all Sherman here," the man on the other end of the phone tells me, after a long pause, when I ask his name. The Shermans—he won't say how many—make up Sherman's Blend, a weed delivery service based somewhere in South Seattle. The rules: text or call, cash only, and your order arrives in a discreet paper bag. The hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
"We require people to have a valid ID that says they're 21," this Sherman tells me. "Whether they have a medical card or not, we deal with adults. We don't deal with children."
Sherman says his service is popular among tourists who don't want to "go on a quest" to find some pot to enjoy in their hotel room (a legal gray area in itself, by the way, since many hotels ban smoking of any kind inside their rooms). And, he says, it's a cheap alternative for buyers until prices in the legal market come down. Even in the face of Murray's crackdown, he has no intention of quitting the business.
"I would just risk it," this Sherman says.
Not every delivery service is so bold. Some require medical authorizations in addition to age-proving ID, and still others are associated with brick-and-mortar dispensaries. Ari Emadi owns Eastside Herbal Care, which delivers in and around Bellevue and Kirkland, and says he's considered delivering to recreational users, too, but "it's not worth the risk."
Delivery services aren't the only ones operating in a fraught space when it comes to letter-of-the-law legality versus actual enforcement. City leaders plan to impose more regulations on medical providers, too, arguing that too many of them aren't diligent about checking the safety of their products or the medical needs of their customers.
The specifics are still in flux, but the mayor's office will propose new city licenses for medical marijuana businesses in January. With the new licenses will come new rules: required testing, opaque packaging for edibles, outright bans on edibles that may be especially appealing to children, and a required minimum distance—1,000 feet, which is three to four city blocks—between medical businesses. (These rules would act as a placeholder until the state legislature creates similar rules statewide, which it's expected to do in the upcoming session.)
"Right now, we have the problem of collective gardens continuing to open, and we don't have any civil mechanisms to close them," Mendoza, the policy advisor, told the council. "Our goal is to stop this growth and reduce it, acknowledging there are a lot of bad actors out there."
This is a fine line to navigate. Assuming the majority of medical businesses are illegitimate risks ignoring the needs of many very real, very sick patients (and, as state lawmakers learned last year, it risks pissing off the long-self-regulating medical pot industry). But even those in the industry admit not all their counterparts are "good actors."
"There are all sorts of people that are calling themselves medical but not acting in accordance with any laws," says John Davis, a marijuana lobbyist and dispensary owner. Davis says he worries the new 1,000-foot rule could force already existing "good players" to shut down or move. But he supports the rest of the rules, including requiring medical businesses to test their products in a way similar to what I-502 requires.
"We want an industry that's reasonably well regulated," Davis says. "We want to make sure people know a legalized system is better than prohibition."
When it comes to delivery services, Murray's office does say there may be exceptions for "designated providers" who deliver. (In contrast to businesses delivering pot as if it were pizza, a "designated provider" is one person who provides medical marijuana for just one other person who cannot get it for him- or herself—more like Meals on Wheels than Domino's.) As for the crackdown on non–"designated providers," the mayor's office has said they'd like to see commercial pot delivery services offered "one strike," where police would take their product but skip criminal charges the first time they're caught. A second bust would bring charges. Since selling pot without a license is a felony, those cases would bypass the city attorney's office and go straight to King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
Satterberg acknowledges there's "no legal authority for a delivery service" to exist, but sounds reluctant to spend his time on them. He says his office has pursued "fewer than a half-dozen" marijuana cases this year, all of them either large grow operations or possession in the neighborhood of 100 pounds.
"I'm not looking for more cases to do," Satterberg says. "I have plenty... One adult selling to another adult isn't a high priority."
Then he adds a caveat: "But a full-blown business delivering large quantities of marijuana might [get] a different analysis than someone selling one gram hand-to-hand on the Ave."
The Seattle Police Department won't say when or just how they'll start this new focus on delivery services. Are stings coming for pot delivery providers? Are delivery-driver perp walks headed for a nightly newscast near you? No one's saying. But spokesperson Sean Whitcomb will say that while "we balance the investigative focus so that most of our resources are directed to violent offenses and dangerous drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine," the department is ready to follow the mayor's directive.
"We recognize there are delivery services that are operating," Whitcomb says. "Our message to them is that while they haven't been the subject of criminal investigation yet, that could change in an instant."