Medical marijuana shops open in Washington

Supply: Using it is legal, but status of sellers still fuzzy

June 25, 2009 

SPOKANE – Now that marijuana can be legally used to ease patients’ pain, dispensaries are opening in Spokane to provide it.

And regardless of whether such stores are what Washington voters and legislators envisioned when they allowed medical marijuana, it may only be a matter of time before the businesses are commonplace: Medical marijuana has been approved in more than a dozen states.

The dispensaries’ legal status, however, remains hazy.

For Judy, a medical marijuana customer who asked that her last name be withheld, the drug has been a blessing.

She credits it for alleviating the pain from a severe brain trauma and other injuries sustained 12 years ago when a suicidal man rammed his pickup into her car.

The crash severed her leg below the hip.

“I remain thankful to be alive,” she said.

After years of buying marijuana illegally, Judy now has a doctor’s note that says marijuana is a proper medication to ease her pain.

She buys her supply from a shop called Change. It opened two months ago and is run by Christopher Stevens, Noah Zarate and Scott Shupe.

People smoke and buy marijuana at the Northwest Boulevard store, and police know about it. The owners wrote a letter to Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick about their business; her reply stated that her officers are committed to enforcing local, state and federal laws.

Stevens, a candidate for Spokane City Council, took her reply to mean police would not interfere with the business.

Washington voters passed Initiative 692 – the Medical Use of Marijuana Act – in 1998. The Legislature sought to clarify the law in 2007, asking the Department of Health to define a legal and appropriate supply of marijuana. The Health Department determined that a medically authorized person could possess a 60-day supply, or 11/2 pounds of marijuana or 15 plants.

Donn Moyer, a Health Department spokesman, said that enforcement of the laws is left to local, state and federal police.

A Health Department Web page at www.doh.wa.gov/hsqa/medical-marijuana includes a “frequently asked questions” section about medicinal marijuana.

One question: “Is medical marijuana legal in Washington?”

The answer: “Marijuana possession is illegal in Washington.” The agency describes the state’s medical marijuana law as a legal mechanism that “provides an affirmative defense for qualified patients and designated caregivers.”

Regardless of state laws, marijuana is outlawed by the federal government, which does not accept that marijuana has medical benefits.

Another question: “How do I get medical marijuana? Can I buy it?”

The DOH answer: “The law allows a qualifying patient or designated provider to grow medical marijuana. It is not legal to buy or sell it.”

The owners of Change interpret the state law differently. They contend they have the right to buy marijuana and resell it to people who have written authorization from their doctors. Stevens said he obtains a wholesale supply of marijuana from local farmers with surplus crops and sells it – sales tax included – at retail prices.

And he urges patients to be careful.

“Being able to use marijuana legally as medicine is a privilege,” he said. “I tell our patients that it’s a privilege that can be lost.”

A sale to Judy on Tuesday resembled a typical retail transaction. Stevens described the product, answered questions and made a recommendation based on Judy’s questions.

When she settled on what she wanted, Judy pulled $80 from her billfold and handed it to Stevens. He unscrewed a jar lid, fetched 5 grams of a variety called “Snow Cap,” weighed it, put it in a baggie and affixed a label urging users to keep the drug out of the reach of children and cautions that it may cause drowsiness.

Judy said she liked the arrangement.

“I like coming here,” she said, “because it’s private, I trust the source, the service is personal and I don’t get hassled by anyone.”

She smokes marijuana at least three times a day. She does not work, lives on disability payments and said she has discontinued other pain medications now that marijuana is easier to obtain.

Some patients aren’t sure what to buy, so they are offered samples at what co-owner Zarate calls a “taste bar.” The rise of such dispensaries may be inevitable.

Display ads tout the benefits of marijuana in this week’s issue of the Nickel Nik, under classified listings for puppies, manufactured homes and yard sales.

An ad by CBR Medical Inc., with clinics across the state including one at 3115 E. Mission Ave., claims marijuana can alleviate pain associated with many conditions, including epilepsy, AIDS and fibromyalgia.

Stevens said the next move for medical marijuana will be a push to force insurers – including the government’s Medicare and Medicaid programs – to pay much like they do for prescription drug coverage.

“That has to happen,” he said.

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