Two Sides of the CoinBy Stephanie Bishop
Medical cannabis access point owners and their counsel spend many hours deciding whether to structure their business by local policy or to adhere to the ambiguous language of the law itself.
The Cascades divide Washington State between east and west—but they are also metaphors for the division between different scenarios found in the world of medical cannabis. In Seattle, cannabis businesses thrive and are accepted by local officials who have worked with patient providers to decide how best to interpret the law and implement a responsible program in their community. For example, Cannabis Farmers Markets—where growers come together to work directly with patients—opened in Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle, offering a new kind of access. These events happen almost every weekend today.
East of the mountains, Spokane and the Tri-Cities operate under a far different environment. During April and May of 2011, the area sustained waves of federal enforcement. Businesses choosing to continue to provide safe access to patients in this area received indictments and found themselves in front of federal judges defending their business approach in the grey area of ever-changing state laws.
Regardless of what side of the mountains one resides in, current law stipulates that cannabis providers are only allowed one person at a time to be served at an access point or dispensary. Qualified patients were served one at a time in private consultation rooms after signing in at a reception room’s waiting list. But after Gov. Christine Gregoire signed SB 5073 into law—after axing key provisions (creating a confidential patients registry, allowing for “cannabis food processors,” legalizing and regulating dispensaries)—the new language specified that only one person could be designated to a provider with a 15-day waiting period between patients.
In Spokane, prosecutors attempted to use this language as a layer in their case against two defendants to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt they had distributed a Schedule I drug illegally. The cases were brought to trial before SB 5073 changed the language of the law. In the case of Scott Shupe and the associates of the CHANGE access point, the conviction was overturned based on the ambiguous language in the law. At the time, serving one patient at a time was an acceptable business model for local authorities and therefore proved Scott Shupe was working legally supplying quality medical marijuana to Spokane’s medical cannabis patients.
In the case of Adam Assenberg and Compassion for Patients, prosecutors moved to dismiss charges based on the theory of “one patient at one time, for a moment at a time” as interpreted after the Shupe ruling. Courts ruled this business model was legal according to the vague wording of the medical marijuana law in effect at the time of the ruling.
The current language in the law leaves no room for “one patient at one time” policies as a layer of protection in either state law or local policy. Access points and dispensaries in Washington State cannot expect to be able to use this grey area as defense in future cases.
In Seattle, collective gardens have adapted their business models according to the prosecuting attorney’s policy. Shortly after SB 5083’s partial veto, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg worked with legislators to establish regional interpretation and acceptance of the law. He helped make it so each municipality could basically decide if they want access points or not in their area. This act sparked a long series of city council meetings everywhere in the state, all with different outcomes. With Initiative 502—which legalizes possession of under an ounce of cannabis by adults 21 and older and authorizes state-regulated, privately-run retail cannabis stores—expected to go into effect next year, grey areas are even more convoluted with opportunities for misinterpretation on both law and policy.
Bad to Worse
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg wasn’t thrilled when Gov. Christine Gregoire gutted SB 5073. Among other things, it required cannabis providers to wait 15 days in between serving patients. 15 days! The provision was originally meant to apply only to unlicensed providers rather than dispensaries, which were to be regulated by the state, according to Seattle Weekly. But since the governor took out the dispensary sections, the 15-day rule would apply to all providers. “In many ways, this is much more restrictive than the current law,” Satterberg told the Weekly. We couldn’t agree more.