Medical Marijuana In Washington State: Will Seattle Lead Us?

red neon public market sign with a coffee cup

In the spring of 2011, the Washington State legislature passed Senate Bill 5073 to regulate marijuana for medical use. But based on concernswith how the federal government would respond to that Bill, then Governor Christine Gregoire vetoed those portions of the Bill that would have legalized marijuana for medical use and created a licensed and transparent chain of distribution for dispensing, cultivating, and manufacturing medical marijuana. That veto has left Washington State’s medical marijuana laws vague/non-existent regarding commercialization of marijuana for medical use. Washington State has laws that set up a framework for “collective gardens,” but no law legalizing the sale of medical cannabis or the lawful establishment of brick and mortar dispensaries. There are also no laws on state oversight of medical cannabis.

Despite the lack of any state law clarity on medical cannabis, a number of Washington State cities have nonetheless allowed commercial medical marijuana businesses to operate within their borders. Some of these cities have enacted their own regulations such as requiring medical cannabis businesses to secure  business licenses or comply with applicable zoning laws. Washington’s hodge-podge system of no to almost no regulation of medical cannabis led the federal government to call Washington’s medical marijuana program “untenable” and the Washington State Court of Appeals to hold that medical marijuana activity, including running a medical marijuana business, is illegal under state law. In 2012, Washington State passed Initiative 502 to legalize recreational marijuana and since that time the Washington State legislature has been trying to decide whether to enact laws to merge existing medical marijuana businesses into I-502 or to create a wholly separate licensing system for medical marijuana altogether.

Seattle, Washington State’s largest city by far, nicely represents the legal chaos surrounding medical marijuana in the entire state. In the summer of 2011, the City of Seattle talked of treating medical marijuana dispensaries like any other business. But after the passage of Initiative 502, local policy leaders, including Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, began calling for a single regulated marijuana system under Initiative 502, without any medical marijuana businesses. In 2013, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance mandating that marijuana businesses without State licenses by January 2015 (then extended to summer 2015) — either pursuant to Initiative 502 or a licensing program for medical marijuana that the state has yet to create — would be shut down by the city. Just last month, the City of Seattle sent shutdown warning letters to over 300 dispensaries, reminding them that they are on borrowed time because they lack a state license to run their business and will be shut down this summer.

But in an effort to avoid the shutdowns and to bring some order to the chaos, Seattle is once again looking to revamp its treatment of medical marijuana. According to the Seattle Times, Seattle and its mayor, Ed Murray, are ready to intervene on their own regulatory terms:

The mayor’s plan would establish a regulatory system for medical similar to that of the state’s recreational system in that it sets standards for testing, packaging and advertising. It would require criminal background checks for business owners and require businesses to allow inspections by the city. The new system calls for two classes of collective gardens.

Class 1 collective gardens would operate with dispensaries; class 2 collective gardens would not and aren’t subject to many of the more restrictive requirements such as testing. The class 1 dispensaries would have to be 500 feet from childcare centers, schools, parks, libraries, transit centers and recreation centers, but there don’t appear to be limits for class 2 gardens, which would only allow 45 plants on each parcel. Class 1 collective gardens are required to test for potency (including CBD), as well as pesticides, mold, fungus and heavy metals. Pesticides and heavy metals tests are typically more expensive than the testing the state’s Liquor Control Board requires for recreational marijuana.

The outline also calls for a separate processing license that establishes packaging requirements for edibles and adopts the state Liquor Control Board’s rules for concentrates.

These are the mayor’s plans and proposals. Nothing has gone to the City Council yet, but it no doubt will, and soon. Whether or not the State legislature acts on medical cannabis during its upcoming session, it is now looking as though Seattle will have a heavily regulated medical and recreational marketplace going forward.

If you are in Seattle’s medical cannabis business community, get ready.