A bustling Seattle marijuana marketplace, where thousands of customers buy pot each year, could be on the verge of legal trouble with the city over a building code violation.
The City Attorney's Office is deciding whether to file a legal complaint against Northwest Cannabis Market, Inc., a company that operates two marketplaces where dozens of independent medical marijuana retailers sell their goods. One is on Seattle's Rainier Avenue; the other is in White Center. The case stems from a Department of Planning and Development inspection, which found that the Rainier Avenue location had run afoul of building permit rules and may need seismic upgrades.
Steep fines accompany the rule violation, accruing at a rate of $150 for the first 10 days of non-compliance and $500 per day thereafter. As of Thursday, the fines that the city could levy against the market totaled about $80,000. That number will continue to rise until the permitting problems are resolved. Michael Keysor, the CEO of the Northwest Cannabis Market, said he is working to comply with the rules and is hopeful that the city will not file the lawsuit needed to collect some or all of that money.
If the city does try to collect the fines, Keysor said he would attempt to keep the market running, but that he would probably have to turn to new investors to raise more cash. "We're not stopping," he said. "I have no intention of shutting down."
But the permit violation is not the only uncertainty the marketplace is facing. State lawmakers have yet to come up with rules to align the state's medical marijuana industry with the new system for recreational pot. It is not clear whether future legislation will leave room for the Northwest Cannabis Market, or the medical marijuana dispensaries that pepper the streets of Seattle.
Meanwhile, City Attorney Pete Holmes recently indicated that his office planned to work closely with DPD to enforce building code violations at marijuana businesses. And the U.S. Justice Department has been critical of the state's loose rules for medical pot.
On Wednesday, at the Northwest Cannabis Market on Rainier Avenue, 37 customers passed through the business' lobby between 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. As they entered the market, staff members checked prescriptions. The majority of the customers were males that looked to be in their 20s and 30s, but there were also a handful of older and female customers.
"A lot of them, their authorizations are questionable," Keysor said. But he added: "It's not our place to question doctors."
Keysor wonders if his business is being used to set an example. While he says that no city officials have treated him badly, he also feels they did not provide clear information about what it would take to achieve compliance with the building code, and that he wasn't given adequate time to meet the permit requirements. "It feels like a game of trickery," he said.
DPD maintains that they are just trying to enforce building code rules meant to keep people safe. "The business never applied for a permit and just moved into an existing warehouse space," DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens wrote in an email.
Like all investigations into city building and land use code violations at marijuana businesses, this one was triggered by a complaint filed with DPD. Keysor does not know who filed the complaint against him and the owners of a neighboring fish shop and bakery were unaware of it. Either way, he's stuck with the consequences.
In order to comply with the permit requirements, Keysor said that city officials told him that he needed to submit updated floor plans for the building -- a request he found confusing since the building had not changed since the 1970s.
"It's an odd, odd thing," he said.
DPD issued a notice of violation to the market on Jan. 15 and gave the business until Feb. 14 to meet the permit requirements. After the February date, the fines kicked in.
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