Bremerton medical marijuana dispensaries on hold

Bremerton medical marijuana patients who hoped to open a non-profit dispensary on Callow Avenue this month have postponed their plans, awaiting the outcome of state legislation that could clarify the rules for such an operation.

Meanwhile, the Bremerton city attorney has reported increased interest in operating medical marijuana dispensaries in the city and has denied two business license applications in the past couple weeks.
Currently, medical marijuana's legality is complicated.

Voters in Washington state approved the legalization of medical marijuana in 1998 by a margin of almost 60 percent, with Kitsap voters approving the measure by the same margin. However, being an approved medical marijuana patient does not provide arrest protections - it only provides a defense in court. Patients can grow marijuana for themselves, but cannot legally buy seeds or plants. Federal law still prohibits the possession and sale of marijuana, however, in 2009 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors to back away from pursuing cases against medical marijuana dispensaries that operate within state law.

Because of the conflicting rules, the city attorney's office said last month it wasn't sure how to address the growing interest in medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. But last week, City Attorney Roger Lubovich said the city would deny all business licenses to anyone planning to open a medical marijuana storefront.

His office denied two applications last week.

"It's illegal activity. Period," Lubovich said. "We don't license illegal activities."

However, Seattle, Tacoma and even Belfair have dispensaries.

Archie Lee, who planned to open a storefront for a medical marijuana dispensary called Herbal Healing on Callow Avenue this month, said his non-profit venture is licensed by the state and he has notified the state Department of Health and Department of Agriculture of its plans. However, he and his partners have not applied for a license from the city, waiting to see how medical marijuana dispensary bills in the Legislature progress.

"Since the city of Bremerton is so against it, we've kind of halted it," Lee said. "We're going to let the state hammer this out before we take any actions on anything."

Meanwhile, Herbal Healing collects marijuana from other medical marijuana patients at their homes and sometimes gives it to certified medical marijuana patients for free in Bremerton and throughout Kitsap County. No money is exchanged for the marijuana, Lee said.

Bills in both the state Senate and House of Representatives would outline the rules for operating medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, essentially making them explicitly legal. According to the most recent version of the Senate bill that passed the Ways and Means Committee Feb. 24, dispensaries would be able to sell cannabis seeds, plants, usable cannabis and cannabis products to qualifying patients. The Department of Health would oversee a confidential list of dispensaries and a voluntary registration system of qualified patients that would offer arrest protection when consulted by law enforcement. Local governments would adopt zoning and business licensing requirements.

According to testimonies given to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Washington stands to gain as much as $3 million in tax revenue per year.

The Senate's bill passed both the Health and Long-Term Care and the Ways and Means Committee last month and awaits a vote by the full Senate. The House version got a public hearing Feb. 8 but has not yet been voted on by a committee.

State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, who has supported marijuana legalization efforts in the past, wrote in an e-mail she hopes the proposed regulations pass.

"By setting the rules for all, that are uniform, people will, with a doctor's prescription, have their needs met and their pain stabilized," Appleton wrote Monday.

In Port Orchard, the City Council voted 6-0 Feb. 22 to impose a six-month moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries. The vote would allow the city to observe how the dispensary bills in the Legislature fare and take more time to determine how it wants to zone dispensaries, Port Orchard City Councilman Fred Chang said. Chang was absent from the vote.

Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent said she wants the city to take a similar wait-and-see tack. She has been approached by people hoping to open dispensaries in the city, who have said that medical marijuana should be regulated and taxed.

Lent said while those in favor of dispensaries have good arguments in their favor, she is reserving judgment on the issue until the state or U.S. government provides more direction.

"Until we have clear information from either Olympia or the federal government, we will have to abide by the laws," Lent said.

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