In a meeting still underway, the Seattle City Council passed a bill that could effectively ban medical marijuana dispensaries within the city limits by requiring the dispensaries to obtain a state medical-marijuana license by 2015—a license that does not exist.
"Requiring medical [marijuana dispensaries] to have a license when the license does not exist is completely unfair," said Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, which operates a medical-marijuana growing facility in Sodo.
The council made it clear last week that the city intends to nix medical marijuana dispensaries, in essence, by requiring them to obtain the same licenses and abide by the same regulations as recreational pot stores, which were legalized last fall by Initiative 502. Currently more than 100 medical dispensaries operate in Seattle; the state is expected to license 21 recreational pot stores in the city by next year. As the council wrote in a letter to the governor on September 30, "If relatively easy access to medical cannabis continues, the goals and potential of Initiative 502 will be undermined." After expressing the city's interest in regulating the pot markets, the council went on, "This could mean combining the general adult cannabis market and the medical cannabis market into a single, regulated system."
But, in testimony before the vote, activists argued the council would violate voter intent. The initiative to legalize adult recreational pot last fall was not supposed to reduce patients' access to medical marijuana. But that's what the council is doing. By shunting dispensaries into the same handful of zones as recreational stores, and by requiring stores to have a state license (either a recreational license or a theoretical dispensary license, which, again, does not exist), the council is using recreational pot law as an excuse to gut medical marijuana. As far as patients are concerned, the recreational stores may not carry the strains of cannabis, nor the other products (such as salves, balms, and tinctures), they get at dispensaries. And the city has no legitimate interest in undermining the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 1998 and amended repeatedly by the state legislature.
Longtime medical marijuana industry activist Philip Dawdy told the council, "You are going to be punishing patients if they get shut down."
But bill sponsor Nick Licata insisted it's not the council's "intent" to ban dispensaries completely. He said the legislature could creating a medical marijuana license next year that would allow dispensaries in Seattle to stay open. "We are leaving the door slightly open. There could be a different license from the state," said Licata, who added that his bill was "a little nudge to the state to do something." However, that's entirely speculative. Olympia already failed once, in 2011, to approve dispensary licenses. The legislature is also famously hostile to Seattle interests. And as Ben Livingston reported for The Stranger last week, the state is exploring ways to stymie medical marijuana dispensaries, too. Licata said the city could revisit the issue if the state fails to issue medical marijuana licenses.
The council bill also addresses a panoply of zoning issues—some sensible and some bizarre. For instance, the bill codifies areas where recreational pot stores may open to match state and federal standards. But it also restricts the stores more than state or federal law require. The council voted to ban pot businesses near the sports stadiums and historic districts, including Pioneer Square. Licata claimed his goal was to "not trip the wire that gives federal government rationale for coming in." But when asked what legal issue justified banning stores near the stadiums and Pioneer Square, Licata couldn't name one. He just mewled about "a balance of real needs in communities" (which sounds to me like capitulating to lobbyists for the Mariners and Pioneer Square business groups). As a result, the council will concentrate pot stores in a handful of tiny districts, even fewer districts than shown in this map.