Seeking to head off a controversy over medical marijuana, the Tacoma City Council Tuesday agreed to a plan that would allow established medicinal pot dispensaries in the city to continue selling to patients until state lawmakers clarify the law.
“The Tacoma City Council is not opposed to safe and legal access to medical marijuana for patients with legitimate need,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Tuesday.
Under Strickland’s proposal for stemming a controversy ignited when the city’s Tax and Licenses manager issued cease-and-desist letters to eight medical marijuana dispensaries, the city will agree to suspend taking any action as long as each of the dispensaries files an appeal to the letters.
The city will delay setting hearings on those appeals until the end of the 2011 state legislative session, during which lawmakers are expected to clarify portions of the medical marijuana enacted in 1999 after citizens passed a ballot measure. “The way the current law is written is confusing,” said Strickland.
But whether state lawmakers actually can accomplish such clarity is another issue.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who has sponsored bills to clarify the medical marijuana initiative every year since it was passed – and will again next session – said perennial obstacles exist to stymie such efforts.
“A lot of legislators are worried about voting on anything involving marijuana,” she said. “There’s not a cohesive community of activists.”
Cohesive or not, medical marijuana supporters packed Tuesday evening’s council meeting after learning of the city’s letters, prepared to testify against the crackdown. Strickland’s first order of business was to announce the compromise, news of which caused the activists to erupt in cheers.
Most of the overflow crowd then poured out onto Market Street, where they held an impromptu celebration.
“This was a peaceful victory, a victory won in truth and numbers,” said Ezra Eickmeyer, a lobbyist for the newly formed Washington Cannabis Association.
In an interview, a spokesman for a group seeking to legalize pot in Washington called the council’s late-breaking compromise “mildly encouraging.”
But even with the city’s commitment to suspend closing down dispensaries, “there’s still latitude there for law enforcement abuses,” said Philip Dawdy, spokesman for Sensible Washington.
“The law is big enough for that (wiggle room), and clearly, there are people on TPD that are enforcing it pretty damn tight,” he added.
Among other things, Strickland and council members noted that Tacoma police still could take actions against dispensaries over reported illegal pot sales outside of those for legitimate medical use.
The city also would seek to impose a moratorium on business licenses for applicants seeking to establish dispensaries until after state lawmakers clarify the issue.
Strickland said she met with Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell and others to discuss the compromise, after medical marijuana and pot legalization proponents from across the state announced Monday they would converge on Tacoma City Hall on Tuesday night to protest the cease-and-desist letters.
Sent by city Tax and Licenses Manager Jodie Trueblood, the letters – dated Oct. 14 – came with the subject line: “Notice to Cease Dispensing Marijuana.” The notices specifically cite part of the state’s medical marijuana law, noting that designated providers are allowed to serve “only one patient at a time.”
Pot proponents argued that the city’s interpretation of the law was far narrower than in other jurisdictions, including Seattle, which generally allows such dispensaries to operate.
“The City’s reading of the law is inconsistent with what Washington voters approved in 1998,” said Sensible Washington chair and medical marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt. “It’s also inconsistent with how the same law is read by King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.”
City Council members said they were caught off guard by the city notices – and the controversy they stirred.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Councilman Marty Campbell said.
Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano apologized to council members for staff members sending the letters without consulting the council.
Medical marijuana has been a hot topic in Tacoma since a dispensary – Club 420 – was raided in mid-May and two men arrested on a slew of drug-related charges. Both have pleaded not guilty.
After the raid, dozens of residents and business owners showed up at a City Council meeting to express concern about wasting city resources and making it more difficult for patients to obtain medicine in a safe manner. Strickland later suggested the city include language in the its legislative policy manual that encourages state lawmakers to clarify the medical marijuana law.
“The reason these letters went out is you have a few of these alleged providers that are dealing drugs, and they’re ruining it for legitimate providers,” Strickland added.
Even as protesters began to arrive Tuesday afternoon for the rally at City Hall, Strickland and the council were in a ninth-floor meeting room discussing the proposed compromise and consulting with City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli.
“The best solution would be to have the Legislature get in there too and to make things clear for everyone,” Pauli said.