Medical marijuana inhabits a legal no-man’s-land in Seattle
By Lucas Anderson and Meghan Walker
On a busy street in Ballard, a modest house with big front windows gives passersby little information about the happenings within. The only clue is a laptop visible from the sidewalk with a logo: Fweedom Collective.
Tyler Godfrey, a young man wearing a white dress shirt, approaches visitors at the door with the question, “Do you have your recommendation?”
The front room is tastefully but sparsely decorated. The walls are green, the floors are a light hardwood, and a large L-shaped white couch offers seating for patients while they fill out paperwork. This is a medical marijuana dispensary, where only a doctor’s recommendation will grant you access to a free-for-all of marijuana products.
In ten clear plastic containers are different strains of pot, from “AK-47” to “White Widow” and “Perma Frost.” On some shelves in a corner are pot-cupcakes, marijuana trail mix and medicated pasta sauce. After the patients make their selections, Godfrey collects their money, and sends them on their way.
Godfrey is co-owner of Fweedom, one of over three-dozen dispensaries operating in Seattle.
Fweedom serves only patients who have an authorization from their doctor. Godfrey says it’s important that patients have access. “Medical marijuana patients need a place to obtain their medicine, because if they can’t do it in a professional manner like this, they have to go to a criminal market, which then affects the community.”
A map of dispensaries in North Seattle
This is reality for medical marijuana users, who have around 50 pot shops in Seattle that supply them with their medicine. The catch? All the people in this room – from Godfrey to his patients – are breaking state law.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington for over a decade, but current law technically forbids such businesses like Fweedom. But, King County prosecutor Dan Satterburg has been firm on the stance of medical marijuana: it’s a low-priority issue in the city, so the dispensaries are left alone.
The debate extends beyond advocates and lawmakers; some people fear addicts could exploit the medical marijuana system. Roger Roffman, a faculty member in the University of Washington School of Social Work, studies drug and alcohol addictions. He says he’s seen marijuana-dependent patients who have sought out medical marijuana recommendations in order to avoid arrest. While Roffman acknowledges there are legitimate patients, he fears abuse.
He says it’s not just the patients who might be exploiting the system, but also those who run dispensaries. “We’re dealing with people exploiting as growers and distributors, people exploiting as patients, while we as a society are trying to get our heads on straight about legalizing and taxing and regulating marijuana. We have a very substantial number of people… are not ill…and who are using the authorization system as a way of protecting themselves from arrest. It’s almost as though we’re not willing to acknowledge the elephant in the living room.”
Tyler Godfrey of Fweedom has been open for just a few months. When he opened shop, it looked as though dispensaries would soon gain protection under state law.
As the law stands now, a patient can be given an authorization from their doctor to grow up to a 60-day supply of their own medicine, amounting to 15 plants or 24 ounces.
But marijuana can be hard and expensive to grow and not all patients want to do it. That’s where dispensaries like Fweedom come in; they allow patients easy access to their medicine and are run by patients themselves who have the legal right to grow, like Godfrey. The marijuana culture in Seattle has given people like Godfrey the confidence that their shops won’t be raided.
Lawmakers worked this legislative session to carve out a bill to address the issue. State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduced Senate Bill 507, which took the dispensary issue head-on, and created a provision that would have allowed dispensaries to operate legally in the state. After four months of working its way through the state legislature, the bill went to Governor Chris Gregoire on April 29.
Gregoire partially vetoed the bill, dashing the hopes for dispensary legalization this year. According to a spokesperson from her office, Karina Shagren, the governor was concerned that state employees could be federally prosecuted if dispensaries are legalized.
The bill had Washington State employees regulating the marijuana industry, potentially leaving them vulnerable to federal prosecution for dealing with marijuana shops that were legal according to state law but violated federal law.
Kohl-Welles believes the threat doesn’t hold up, “I have a hard time imagining federal agents going after state employees doing their job under the law.” Regardless, the governor’s veto required Kohl-Welles and other lawmakers to pull back and reassess. In the legislative special session, Kohl-Welles pushed a new bill that would have circumvented the state employee issue by making dispensaries legal across the state but letting each city and town decide whether or not to allow them in their jurisdiction. However, the bill fell short by one vote and was abandoned.
Now that the legislative sessions are over, Seattle is left to make sense of the new law left by Gregoire’s partial veto of SB 5073.
The new bill states that all dispensaries are permitted to serve just one patient every 15 days, or two patients a month, potentially leaving all dispensaries at risk for prosecution. The new law will take effect July 1. However, many Seattle officials are working on a way to save city dispensaries from the restrictive law. Kimberly Mills is with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office. She says the city attorney, county prosecutor, mayor’s office, city council and police department will all work together to draft city legislation to protect dispensaries. “There are still more questions than answers; the whole situation just became even grayer,” said Mills.
Back at Fweedom, Godfrey shows a patient his product. The patient takes a big sniff of “Perma Frost,” and says he’ll take a gram of it.
Godfrey says he’ll continue his work at Fweedom, despite how fuzzy the law has become. “Collectives are a necessity; we keep people off the illegal drug market. Hopefully the city recognizes how safe and important that is.”
This story was produced for Next Door Media by students in the University of Washington’s Entrepreneurial Journalism course.