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Seattle Times coverage of pot policy, culture and lifestyle.

January 5, 2015 at 10:39 AM

City Attorney Pete Holmes: ‘Clearly commercial’ medical pot shops not legal

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes pushed the Legislature to fold medical marijuana into the state’s recreational system in a wide-ranging policy memo Monday.

He also urged the City of Seattle to aggressively enforce against medical-marijuana businesses not following state law or city regulations. Some businesses aren’t operating with proper permits. Others have not paid local business and occupation taxes. Some opened after the city council passed an intended moratorium on new medical-marijuana businesses.

Holmes said he published the memo to clarify any confusion about medical-marijuana laws.

“If you’re a commercial (medical-marijuana) operation lacking a 502 license (Initiative 502), it’s a felony operation. Period,” said Holmes.

Holmes said he hopes his memo reframes the debate about medical marijuana. He said recent court decisions have made it clear that medical marijuana providers have a “limited affirmative defense” in court, but that’s it.

“I have talked to some medical producers who are clearly commercial,” said Holmes. “They say, ‘Are you going to make it illegal?’ This memo is clear: You’re already illegal.”

He said the “debate should no longer be about if, but when” medical-marijuana businesses cease operating or join the Initiative 502 system.

In the memo, Holmes endorsed State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles’ proposal to fold medical marijuana into the state’s highly-regulated recreational system and allow small amounts of home growing. He also pushed for “marijuana lounges” that would allow users to vaporize or consume edibles on site. State law does not allow consumption of pot at marijuana stores, so those at pot lounges would need to bring their own weed.

Mayor Ed Murray announced plans last month to propose new regulations for medical marijuana, including a licensing system.

Holmes said he would prefer the Legislature address medical marijuana itself and that a license would stand on legally “iffy” ground.

He wrote in the memo: “Licensing commercial marijuana activity outside the I-502 system … would send a message that the City endorses a parallel but different system for such activity, perhaps conflicting with state law and undercutting arguments for legislation at the state level.”

In a news release, Mayor Ed Murray said the Legislature ought to find a statewide solution for medical marijuana, but said the recreational system did not meet patients’ needs.

“Shutting down all collective gardens is not the right solution because it leaves our patients out in the cold,” said Murray the news release. “I continue to develop a localized solution to this challenge that would allow some collective gardens to continue to serve patients until the Legislature addresses the existing gap. I intend to forward a draft ordinance to the city council in the coming weeks that will protect patient access to safe medical-grade marijuana.”

Holmes said he didn’t see himself at odds with the mayor on marijuana because they both believe the Legislature needs to act.

“We’re having good, healthy debates … I think that it’s good to look at our options,” said Holmes. “What the mayor has proposed is something we’ll really need if the Legislature punts again.”

Although his memo encouraged more enforcement actions against marijuana businesses, Holmes’ office primarily handles civil enforcement against these operations. Felony criminal charges  are handled by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Holmes said he was pleased Satterberg filed charges against Matthew Segal and several employees, who were operating several medical-marijuana businesses including Rain City Medical. The Seattle Police raided Segal’s multimillion-dollar operation in June last year. Satterberg’s office charged Segal in December.

“I commend Satterberg for filing criminal charges against Rain City,” said Holmes. “My office advised SPD they could raid the establishment and seize the plants.”

Holmes acknowledged he was limited in his ability to carry out his vision for pot policy, but hoped the 20-page memo would persuade legislators to take action on medical marijuana.

“I don’t have the legislative power in the city or state,” he said. “All I can do is offer my good-faith opinion.”

Holmes said he plans to be active in Olympia sharing his vision.

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