Seattle plans to license and tax medicinal marijuana like any other business

22/07/2011

in Cannabis

Measures are being pushed in the city of Seattle to regulate the growth and sale of medicinal marijuana like any other business.

Original text from the Seattle Times, here.

The city of Seattle plans to start taxing and licensing medical marijuana operations like any other business, in response to changes in state law that have left the industry in a legal morass.

The Seattle City Council unanimously passed rules Monday requiring that medical marijuana operations be licensed, obtain food-handling permits if they sell marijuana-infused cookies or other items, and follow all other regulations such as land use and historic preservation codes. The approach is the opposite of what several other local cities have done – imposing moratoriums on such operations.

“The upshot is they are here and we should regulate them,” said Councilwoman Sally Clark.

A spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn said he expects to sign the measure quickly.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill that would have created a system of licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and would have blocked police from arresting or searching patients who signed a patient registry, provided that they are following the law, which allows possession of up to 24 ounces of useable marijuana and up to 15 plants.

Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed much of the bill, including the sections on dispensaries and the patient registry, saying she feared state workers could face federal prosecution for participating in the licensing scheme.

She left in sections that say collective marijuana grows with up to 45 plants, serving up to 10 patients, are OK, and many dispensaries around the state are now scrambling to reorganize themselves under that rubric. Some have noted that loopholes could allow relatively large-scale operations: The law is silent on how many community gardens can be located on a single tax parcel, for example, nor does it say anything about whether patients can belong to more than one collective grow operation.

The new version of the state’s medical marijuana law takes effect Friday.

Philip Dawdy, spokesman for the Washington Cannabis Association, said Seattle is the first city to push back against the feds and the governor’s veto.

“They’re saying that we want these places to be part of the community and as long as they fit in with the community, they’re fine,” Dawdy said.

Seattle medical marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt sharply criticized the council’s vote, however.

Though Gregoire left in a section of the bill that allows cities to enforce zoning, licensing and other requirements with regard to the production or sale of marijuana in their jurisdictions, Hiatt argued that the city simply doesn’t have legal authority to regulate an illegal substance – and marijuana remains illegal under federal law and state law. Authorized patients in Washington are allowed to present an “affirmative defense” if they’re arrested, much like someone charged in a homicide can claim self-defense.

Essentially, he said, the city of Seattle is taking steps to amend the state’s controlled substances act, adding the requirement that medical marijuana organizations register as businesses. While the state Legislature has the authority to create such a licensing scheme, the city doesn’t, he argued.

And it could have dire consequences for medical marijuana patients, Hiatt said: If the city of Seattle has the authority to regulate the operations, then other cities, including Kent, Issaquah, and Snohomish, could have the authority to impose moratoriums. He plans a lawsuit to challenge the new Seattle ordinance.

“Med marijuana will be wiped out of the state if the city of Seattle can do all that stuff,” Hiatt said.

Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, questioned that analysis. Other jurisdictions would not be able to regulate community gardens as long as they don’t operate like a business, she said.

“All the ordinance says is that if you’re operating a business, you have to comply with the ordinances relating to business,” she said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much money the city might bring in from marijuana business-related taxes and fees. There are about 50 such operations registered with the city, Clark said, and another 30 that aren’t registered.

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