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Washington became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But there are a lot of challenges ahead: the state must set up a licensing system for marijuana growers and sellers, the federal government may mount a challenge, the need to set a new limit on amount of marijuana in the bloodstream for safe driving. And medical marijuana is still in the picture.Over the next several months we will be exploring the issue and tracking the impact of I-502.

Seattle Gently Reins In Medical Marijuana Providers

Seattle Medical Marijuana van, usually parked outside a dispensary on Fremont Avenue near the Woodland Park Zoo. Tensions have mounted between medical marijuana entities and state-licensed pot shops.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil
Seattle Medical Marijuana van, usually parked outside a dispensary on Fremont Avenue near the Woodland Park Zoo. Tensions have mounted between medical marijuana entities and state-licensed pot shops.

Across Seattle are storefronts with green crosses out front – medical marijuana providers.

Seattle has long been friendly to these businesses, but there’s mounting friction between them and state-licensed stores as lawmakers sort out the state’s new legal marijuana law.

This week, the City of Seattle will hold a symposium on the city’s booming medical marijuana scene. The event comes as city officials are trying to gently rein in these unregulated businesses.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said city officials hope the state legislature will resolve this tension by passing regulations for medical marijuana. Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council extended deadlines for medical marijuana providers to come into some form of compliance. But Holmes said some businesses took that as a “green light” to expand.

Last month, the city sent warning letters to more than 300 medical marijuana organizations. The letter said businesses that opened later than November 2013 could be subject to enforcement.  

“We are sending a clear message that those businesses are operating outside even the compassionate city of Seattle’s guidelines,” Holmes said. “That is not welcome.”

He said his office has filed civil complaints against five marijuana businesses for violating city code, and another half-dozen are in the pipeline. Holmes said the Seattle Police Department has also executed search warrants for marijuana plants recently. One case last June involved a West Seattle grow operation called Rain City. 

“The police took their action in response to neighborhood complaints about odor, about operations,” he said. “Again, here is an operator way out over his skis, making a pest of himself in the neighborhood, and brought down the law on him.”

Police spokesman Drew Fowler said police also confiscated plants from two houses in recent weeks, also after complaints from neighbors. Holmes said he agrees with former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who called the status of medical marijuana businesses “untenable.”

But Holmes said his office’s actions aren’t a direct response of federal pressure – he simply wants I-502, the state’s legal marijuana law, to work. He said can’t happen with so much unregulated or illegal competition.

Holmes said he believes people will ultimately be won over to I-502 retail stores. He said the question is how much to ramp up the response from law enforcement when retail stores are still having marijuana shortages.

Medical marijuana providers are hoping for a bridge to some kind of legal status through the state legislature, although last year those hopes came to nothing.

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Oscar Velasco-Schmitz helped found the Dockside Co-Op, a medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

Velasco-Schmitz will be one of the panel members at the city’s symposium. He hopes state lawmakers can find a way to harmonize medical and recreational marijuana. But he said in the wake of the recent election, “politically things are very tentative right now.”

Meantime, Velasco-Schmitz agreed that Seattle can regulate these businesses.

“I think they’ll do it in a compassionate way,” he said. “Our city officials are thoughtful and they’re not going to be heavy-handed.”

Mayor Murray plans to introduce interim regulations for medical marijuana before the end of the year. His staffers said the testimony presented at this week’s symposium will help craft that legislation.

Year started with KUOW: 2005