Thurston County law enforcement agencies are presenting a united front against the soon-to-be-illegal unlicensed medical marijuana businesses.
The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and Prosecutor's Office are taking the lead on education, with Sheriff John Snaza planning to visit almost every medical marijuana business in the county during the week of June 27. The laws governing marijuana change July 1.
“We want to make sure that we’ve done our part in reaching out to all the collectives we can,” Snaza said. “I don’t want to throw people in jail for this. We’re just trying to change the culture again.”
Snaza won’t just be visiting dispensaries in unincorporated Thurston County, the area served by the Sheriff’s Office. He’ll also go to medical marijuana dispensaries in the county’s cities — including Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and Yelm.
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While there, he’ll pass out a letter signed by himself, Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, Lacey Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint, Tumwater Police Chief John Stines, Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts, and Yelm Police Chief Todd Stancil.
The letter explains the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, enacted in April 2015 by the state Legislature. Under the new statute, the state’s medical marijuana businesses will become part of the regulated recreational marijuana industry on July 1 — meaning all medical marijuana businesses will need to close if they haven’t been issued recreational licenses by the state.
The letter reads:
“This communication is to encourage willful compliance with the state’s licensing requirements and to provide you notice that if your establishment does not have a state-issued retail marijuana license as of July 1, 2016, any sales, deliveries, or transactions involving marijuana or marijuana products would be unlawful and your establishment will be subject to both criminal and civil enforcement.”
Snaza said he hopes the letter will prevent his deputies, and officers from other jurisdictions, from having to increase the number of marijuana arrests they’re making.
“I’m hoping that our deputies aren’t busy after July 1 because I’m hoping the education component will work, and that there is compliance,” Snaza said.
Employees and owners of unlicensed dispensaries that continue to sell marijuana after July 1 could be charged with felonies, as could the people who grow the product without a license, Tunheim said. Charges could include unlawful delivery of a controlled substance and unlawful manufacture of a controlled substance.
“Anybody who is personally working inside one of the dispensaries could be prosecuted,” Tunheim said. “Also an owner or a manager would be liable for that.
“In our view, the new law pretty clearly makes the unlicensed dispensaries unlawful,” he added.
But that doesn’t mean that dispensary owners won’t be given time to adapt to the new law, Tunheim said — although it depends on what law enforcement agencies decide to do. If the Sheriff’s Office brings the Prosecutor’s Office a case of a dispensary failing to shut down, prosecutors will file charges if there’s probable cause.
“It’s hard to predict whether there will be an increase in these cases,” Tunheim said. “We may do some prosecution early on so that people know we’re serious. But the optimist in me hopes that the people who legitimately want to help patients get marijuana will find a way to do that in the legal market.”
Snaza also has found himself an ally familiar with Thurston County’s medical marijuana industry: Olympia resident Joe Hyer, a former Olympia City Councilman and self-described medical marijuana advocate. Hyer resigned his council post and abandoned his campaign for Thurston County Treasurer in 2010 after he was arrested on suspicion of selling marijuana — before pot became legal in Washington state.
“I’ve been impressed by Sheriff Snaza so far — he seems like a reasonable guy,” Hyer said. “I don’t think he’s just going to come out and arrest everyone and shut them all down.”
He’s helping Snaza reach out to medical marijuana business owners — which is no small feat. Snaza said he still isn’t sure how many are operating in Thurston County. Hyer said he believes there are 13 medical marijuana storefronts in Olympia alone.
Hyer said his main goal is to make sure patients still have access to marijuana. There’s been a lot of fear and confusion surrounding that aspect of the change.
“Amongst the patients, there is a lot of fear and trepidation because they just don’t know,” Hyer said. “They are very sick, and they don’t get out much.”