Selling juice. That's Adam Bligh's backup plan if the city tells him to shut down his medical marijuana dispensary. Bligh opened the dispensary, Northwest Collective Alliance, on the southern edge of West Seattle, near White Center, about a month and a half ago.
A Seattle city ordinance that went into effect last fall banned larger-sized dispensaries and grow operations not licensed under the state's new recreational marijuana system. Since then, uncertainty about how the state will move forward with medical marijuana laws has deepened the regulatory limbo for dispensaries like Bligh's.
For now his shop seems to be in compliance with city rules based on the amount of marijuana he says he keeps on hand. Still unclear is whether new regulations might put him out of business. Last Friday he discussed alternative possibilities for the dispensary.
"I'm just going to turn it into a juice bar," he said, sitting in the shop's reception area beneath a mounted deer head and a wooden Seattle Seahawks sign. A wall of bulletproof glass separated the front of the dispensary from the space in back where Bligh meets with patients and keeps his inventory. A musician, Bligh said he would also consider turning the back area into a recording studio if his dispensary is deemed illegal.
While there is no firm count, city officials and people familiar with the industry estimate that there are currently about 200 medical dispensaries in the city. These businesses fall outside of the legal framework that governs Washington's new recreational marijuana industry. They are typically selling pot for $8 and $12 per gram, while prices in the recreational market are around $20. They are also on the U.S. Justice Department's radar.
There is broad consensus that the way medical marijuana is sold in Seattle will soon have to change.
State lawmakers, activists and lobbyists tried and failed to get legislation approved earlier this year that would have brought medical retailers and growers into the regulatory fold. They say they will renew their efforts in the next legislative session.
"We definitely will be introducing legislation," said state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who has worked on medical marijuana policy since the mid-1990s. She sponsored a bill in the last session that was designed to align the medical and recreational marijuana systems. But it was not approved. Another bill sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, died in the House without receiving a vote.
It is unclear whether future legislation will preserve a place for dispensaries, or move medical marijuana sales into recreational shops.
"In current law there's no reference to dispensaries," Kohl-Welles said. "They're not prohibited and they're not permitted. It's a gray area."
That gray area has not gone unnoticed by the federal government. The U.S. Justice Department has offered tacit approval for Washington's recreational pot industry, as long as it remains tightly regulated. But Jenny A. Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, has said that marijuana businesses that are operating outside of the state's licensing and regulatory requirements are in violation of both state and federal law.
Philip Dawdy, media and policy director for the Washington Cannabis Association, believes state lawmakers need to move quickly to come up with new rules for medical pot.
"It's obvious the Legislature is going to have to act next year," he said "Otherwise everyone is going to get shutdown."
Last October, in response to state regulations adopted after the passage of Initiative-502, which legalized recreational marijuana, the city of Seattle created new rules for the local marijuana industry. The city ordinance included land zoning requirements for recreational growers and retailers and also banned "major marijuana activity," including growing, processing and sales, unless it is carried out by businesses with state-issued licenses, which are currently only available through the new recreational system. Major activity was defined as more than 45 marijuana plants or 72 ounces of dried pot.
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