With few rules, pot dispensaries try policing themselves
August 25, 2011
Jonathan Martin, Seattle Times
A dozen medical-marijuana entrepreneurs listened intently during a unique four-hour class that detailed how they could stay out of trouble, serve sick patients and prosper.
Among the tips: Keep detailed records. Pay unemployment taxes. Buy air-filtration systems. Don't buy pot brownies from noncommercial kitchens.
And get your terminology right: Medical-marijuana patients don't buy, they donate.
"I see people using 'donate' in air quotes. That's not appropriate. We don't buy or sell anything in this business," Aaron Pelley, a defense attorney specializing in marijuana cases, told the class. "I don't want to see air quotes in a video when I go to defend you in court."
After legal and political hiccups this spring and summer, the state's medical-marijuana industry is emerging reinvigorated, growing and almost entirely based in Seattle.
And in the absence of government regulation, it increasingly is trying to professionalize the industry with such self-policing measures as "best practices" manuals, quality-control testing laboratories and training classes such as the one this week.
"We cannot afford a black eye," Greta Carter, lead teacher of the University District-based training academy Cannabis Association for Recommendations and Education, told the class. National medical-marijuana advocates "are categorizing Seattle with San Francisco and Oakland. We're in an incredible utopia."
It's unclear how large the industry is. Seattle — the only large city in the state to openly allow medical-marijuana operations — estimates there are at least 70 storefront dispensaries, with more coming. Colorado, with 1.6 million fewer people than Washington, has 730 licensed dispensers and more than 1,000 licensed growers.
Washington doesn't keep a registry of patients, but based on the proportion of patients in Oregon and Colorado, which have registries, there could be between 80,000 and 166,000 medical-marijuana patients in Washington, a population somewhere between the size of Bellingham and Vancouver.
Despite the complex issues behind the medical-marijuana industry, Gov. Chris Gregoire's partial veto of a landmark regulatory scheme this spring left no statewide regulation. Few cities except Seattle have stepped in.
That has put onus of regulation on the industry itself, with mixed results.
The feds' concerns
While crafting Seattle's medical-marijuana ordinance, City Attorney Pete Holmes' office asked for input from federal prosecutors. State law has allowed use of marijuana for qualified patients since 1998, but federal law still prohibits all use.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan's office responded with particular "sensitivities," including marijuana dispensaries' proximity to schools and the number of plants on hand, according to a person familiar with the issue.
None of those concerns were directly addressed in the city ordinance, which simply requires medical-marijuana operations to comply with city codes. Holmes has said further city regulation might be coming this fall.
But the school-zone issue did make it into a preliminary "best practices" manual drafted by the state chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group, which recommends dispensaries stay 500 feet from schools. It also suggests the industry be a good neighbor, organizing neighborhood cleanups and running background checks on employees.
Both Durkan's office and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg also expressed concerns about garish advertising. Satterberg, in particular, flagged "naughty nurse" ads in Seattle's alternative weeklies.
In response, most dispensaries stopped running sexually suggestive ads. But Jing Mo, director of the nonprofit Seattle Cannabis Co-op, said she continues to run "naughty nurse" ads, and a marijuana price list, because "they draw people in."
"I haven't received any [cease-and-desist] letters saying they're not happy with what I'm doing," said Mo, 30. "Until the whole thing is defined, how to advertise in a certain way or not, everything else is speculative."
"Medicine, not a party"
At the training class this week, business attorney Hilary Bricken said dispensaries must be nonprofit entities and comply with state labor laws, including paying minimum wage. Because of a change in state law in July, dispensaries also had to adopt a new business model, based on newly legal collective gardens.
Jeremy Kaufman, co-founder of The Center for Palliative Care, a nonprofit dispensary in Seattle's Georgetown, said he is paying business and sales taxes and unemployment insurance.
"If this multibillion-dollar industry has a chance of coming above ground, you have to pay taxes," said Kaufman, 30.
Concerns about the quality and consistency of marijuana dispensed to patients have prompted another self-policing effort.
A group calling itself the Association of Medical Marijuana Producers and Processors is hoping to open a members-only commercial kitchen this fall, where cannabis food producers can work in safe, sterile conditions.
The group, which includes more than 35 growers, is preparing to certify that its members' products are free of pesticides and herbicides.
The intent, said organization director Christopher Wright, is to be the "trademark of safety and quality.
"We're interested in making safest, highest-quality medicine, not a party," he said.