Medical pot users, stores upset by Tacoma’s ‘curve ball’

Kate Martin, Bellingham Herald

The day after the Tacoma City Council told staff to get ready to close down unlicensed pot shops, medical marijuana customers and store owners expressed frustration about what they see as an about-face.

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Vietnam veteran Dennis Ragan said he turned to marijuana to help his post-traumatic stress disorder and severe back pain. He doesn’t think he can get the same products at a recreational marijuana shop that is licensed by the state under Initiative 502.

“I don’t take drugs because it goofs me up,” he said while standing in the lobby of the Cannabis Club Collective on Sixth Avenue where he purchased marijuana-infused juice and edibles. “It helps me every day medically.”

Even though some medical marijuana patients have turned to dispensaries for years to ease health problems, the stores remain untouched by the state regulatory system that governs the city’s five recreational pot stores. In the city’s view, the unlicensed shops are operating illegally.

But for years the city has largely turned a blind eye, responding only to residents’ complaints including noise or smell. Now the city attorney’s office is preparing to send letters sometime early next year telling all unlicensed shops to stop operating within 90 days. There will be a short appeal period, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said Tuesday.

City staffers recently counted 56 unlicensed storefronts. All could be closed by summer, and medical marijuana patients and store owners are not happy.

Ragan was one of more than a dozen people who stepped through the Cannabis Club’s doors during the noon hour Wednesday. Many asked what the store owners would do. Brian Caldwell, president of the company that pays the shop’s expenses, reassured customers throughout the day: “It’s OK. We’ll figure this out.”

A block away, the two co-owners of the Mary Mart, a licensed recreational marijuana business, had conflicting feelings about the council’s decision. Damien McDivitt and Noel Roberts said they want to compete fairly in the marijuana marketplace, but they can’t do that when some medical marijuana shops don’t follow even the less stringent laws for medical marijuana.

The marijuana they sell is subject to high taxes and strict testing standards. Cameras inside of the store beam images right to the state Liquor Control Board’s offices, McDivitt said.

But, they said, there is a valid demand for medical shops. Roberts, a cancer survivor, said he knows medical marijuana works. “I think the need is 100 percent legit. We just want the fraud out of it.”

City Council members have also expressed concern about medical shops selling to customers who do not have medical permission to buy marijuana, called a green card. They also questioned whether all green cards were obtained for legitimate medical conditions.

Take away that fraud, Roberts said, and the two systems could coexist in something closer to a fair marketplace. Roberts said it’s nearly impossible to compete with the prices medical shops can offer because they don’t pay the same taxes as recreational businesses, so they should be allowed to sell only to legitimate patients.

On Wednesday, Mary Mart was selling marijuana for about $65 for an eighth of an ounce. Down the street at the Cannabis Club, the same amount of a mid-priced strain cost $25.

Mary Mart sees around 80 customers in a day, Roberts said. By comparison, Caldwell said the Cannabis Club sees about 200-300 patients per day.

He said the business, which will celebrate its fourth anniversary in February, requires customers to show a valid green card. Once the card is on file, patients can enter the locked door by flashing an ID, generally a driver’s license.

Caldwell said the council has reason to be concerned because some medical cannabis shops are sketchy operators. But the city’s decision to tell all unlicensed shops to close came out of nowhere, he said. He’d rather see Tacoma establish a system such as Seattle is considering for regulating medical marijuana shops.

“This is a huge curve ball,” he said.

The solution is not to close every shop, said Kari Boiter, a spokeswoman for a medical marijuana advocacy group called Americans for Safe Access.

“You don’t shut down the good actors who are providing a service to patients,” she said. “That’s not good public policy.”

Sick people will resort to street weed if they can’t afford legal marijuana or can’t make it to one of the few recreational stores, she said. Recreational shops also don’t have the low-THC products that medical marijuana patients sometimes need.

“You send a grandma (to a retail store) to get lotions that won’t intoxicate her, and she’s not going to find that,” Boiter said.

Some council members have said they are in a bind because the state Legislature hasn’t acted to regulate the medical marijuana system. But Boiter believes legislators will do so this session.

“Everyone agrees that the system we have now is untenable,” Boiter said. “I, as a patient, don’t want an unregulated medical marijuana system. … We just want safe products, and we want access.”

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