Pot dispensary facing hazy future

City refusing to allow Oly-Dam Market’s more ambitious plans due to lack of permits

mbatcheldor@theolympian.comJune 29, 2013 

A downtown Olympia medical marijuana clinic had plans for bikini-clad “budtenders,” multiple pot vendors, a smoking room and glass-blowing gallery before the city halted work due to a lack of building-related permits.

Those were the plans for Oly-Dam Patients Market at 215 Washington St. NE, across from the Olympia Transit Center, said Tom Hill, permit and inspection services manager for the city of Olympia. The design raised alarm at the city and was one reason why the Olympia City Council suddenly adopted a one-year moratorium on new medical marijuana collective gardens on May 7. On May 22, the city condemned the clinic and banned anyone from entering the building.

Hill said the city didn’t object to the plans for marijuana vending.

“The notice of violation on this particular structure is really not about the collective garden,” he said. “It is about the fact that they’re creating the performance type of space and that they were building it without permits.”

Oly-Dam owner Louis Johnson said he was making an effort to get the proper permits, and should have been allowed to continue selling pot in the business’s front end, which had been home to an earlier dispensary.

“I’m willing to get the permits, but you (the city) won’t allow me to get into the building,” said Johnson, who also owns Urban Medicinals, a dispensary on Legion Way.

Hill said Johnson’s plans require a professional architect or designer and that the city would grant them access to the building.

Johnson said that Oly-Dam was a place where third-party vendors would rent space and give marijuana to people based on donations. He said it’s legal and “not dirty or wrong.”

The smoking room was intended so people could try out the product without leaving the property, he said. And the glass-blowing gallery is for patients to create glassware that they can use to smoke.

“What I wanted to do was just bring the community and patients together so people could see that we could work together,” he said.

Johnson said Oly-Dam was the reason for the moratorium, because the city is worried the large 6,100-square-foot facility would become a “tourist attraction.”

City Manager Steve Hall said that wasn’t the sole reason, that the city had been pondering issuing rules for marijuana clinics dating back to former Mayor Doug Mah, who left office about a year and a half ago.

The clinic’s troubles with the city dates back to late last year, when Hill said city staff noticed that work was going on in the building. City staff repeatedly told Oly-Dam representatives that they must get the proper permits before modifying the building. But Hill said the workers proceeded anyway, putting in walls and ventilation for a smoking room and the beginning of a performance stage and a glassblowing operation.

“They were not necessarily listening to the requests,” Hill said.

In late April, city staff noticed fliers around town advertising for Oly-Dam, Hill said, a play on Amsterdam, the Dutch capital known for legal cannabis.

“Is Olympia the new AMSTERDAM?” one flier asks. Another boasts bikini-clad women, one of them appearing to be drawing from a long glass bong. It advertises that the clinic is hiring “bikini budtenders, 420 calendar girls, dancers and VIP concierge services.” It said “duties include dancing at venues and for VIPs, posing for promotional material used in print and web promotions” and “providing filler footage for various ad spots as well as reality TV clips.”

Hill said the dispensary intended to offer pole dancing, something City Manager Steve Hall repeated as one of his concerns about the facility. But Johnson said that was untrue; he claims the women would market the dispensary at events and be part of a calendar.

Hill said he heard that people in the adjacent Olympia Transit Center were told there would be pole dancing and that they were solicited to work at Oly-Dam.

Johnson said the stage was already part of the previous marijuana dispensary, and he enlarged it so that bands could play there.

“Look at Willie Nelson,” he said, “I want to get people like that down to my shop.”

The clinic opened April 20, Johnson said, claiming that Hill said it was OK to open as long as the back room, where work was underway, was blocked off. (April 20 has become a counterculture holiday for some marijuana consumers, and 4/20 is code for cannabis use.) He said he had as many as six vendors.

In an interview, Hill said he gave Johnson permission to show vendors the space, not to open the marijuana-dispensing operation.

On April 25, the city sent the clinic a formal notice of violation, forbidding any further work and giving it until May 2 to get the proper permits. That didn’t happen. On May 22, the city condemned the building and said it could not be occupied for any use without approval from Hill.

City officials haven’t been allowed in the building on recent visits, Hill said. The next step, he said, is to start issuing citations. The first is about $100, the second more than $200 and the third is up to $500, he said. After that, the city can take the case to Thurston Superior Court.

Johnson said he wants a citation so he can bring the case to court, and is deliberately removing “Do Not Enter” notices so that he will get a citation. But he said the city just keeps putting up more notices, and he doesn’t have the money to sue the city.

Olympia’s marijuana moratorium bans any new facilities from selling, growing, distribution or processing of marijuana. City staff pushed for the measure because they said they need time to write zoning laws for marijuana facilities in light of a citizen measure approving recreational pot last year.

In a move that appears to be targeted at facilities like Oly-Dam, the moratorium prevents existing medical marijuana gardens from opening connected establishments, such as performance spaces, private clubs, nightclubs, taverns or similar establishments.

“The city did this strictly with my building in mind, because everything that you read in there has to do (with) what I have in my shop, in my building,” Johnson said.

Olympia has at least eight medical marijuana establishments that were in place before the moratorium, Hall said, which can continue to operate. Oly-Dam is not one of them, Hill said, because it did not have the proper permits.

But Johnson said the moratorium shouldn’t apply to him because he was operating the pot vending section starting April 20, before the moratorium. Hill maintains he was not authorized to open then.

Johnson said the city is trying to “squeeze” him.

“They know I don’t got the money,” Johnson said. “I’m running out of time to try to keep it alive, and they know if it closes down, then it’s not grandfathered-in no more.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@theolympian.com @MattBatcheldor

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