March 17, 2011 in City

Owners, law agencies disagree on legality of pot dispensaries

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Marijuana advocates say Spokane has quickly earned a new nickname:

Spokansterdam, a nod to the Dutch city where the sale and use of marijuana is widely tolerated.

As authorities await the outcome of the region’s first drug-trafficking trial involving a medical marijuana dispensary, the number of people advertising themselves as Spokane-area suppliers is skyrocketing.

No one knows for sure how many exist here. Twenty-two are registered on the website WeedMaps.com, which tracks dispensaries nationwide. Drug investigators say there probably are more than 40.

The growth should be obvious to motorists traveling along Spokane arterials, as dispensaries occupy once-vacant storefronts at intersections and in shopping centers. The Greenhouse, at Maple Street and Northwest Boulevard, features a sign announcing it delivers.

“It’s a little ridiculous how fast these things are sprouting up,” said Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor John Grasso.

Law enforcement attitudes toward the dispensaries differ across the state, in part because the state’s medical marijuana law is open to multiple interpretations.

The King County prosecutor’s office, for example, does not prosecute dispensaries and, in at least one case, declined to charge a medical marijuana patient who was growing more plants than the 15 allowed by law. Puget Sound-area officials told state lawmakers earlier this year that they have more pressing priorities than raiding medical marijuana shops.

But in Spokane, things are different.

Police have raided several dispensaries, citing a narrow interpretation of the law that they argue prohibits anyone from supplying marijuana to more than one patient. Enforcement actions currently are on hold, though, until a Spokane jury decides whether to convict a dispensary operator on drug-trafficking charges or accept his broader interpretation of the statute and acquit him. A decision is expected this week.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said she’s concerned about the rise in dispensaries but said medical marijuana “is not a high priority for law enforcement” as they await clarification on the intent of the law.

“We’d much prefer to be executing the law after the law is clarified than to be executing the law when it’s in this muddled scenario right now,” she said. “We have a test case pending.”

But Grasso, who is in charge of the drug unit, said he feels the law is clear.

“They are absolutely, without a question, illegal,” Grasso said. “If the Legislature wants to change that, they’ve got the power to do that. But until they do, the dispensaries are operating illegally.”

Based on Grasso’s interpretation, felony drug charges were filed against two men who operated a dispensary on Northwest Boulevard in 2009. It is the first criminal case against a commercial dispensary in Washington state; the trial for one suspect, Scott Q. Shupe, is expected to end today.

Paul E. Ellis pleaded not guilty last month to drug charges related to a dispensary he operated across from the Washington State Patrol office in Spokane Valley.

Investigators learned of Ellis’ dispensary last summer after he invited WSP detectives to tour the shop and view the marijuana plants at his home.

The brazen act highlights the stark difference in how local authorities and pot advocates view the law. While police and prosecutors say the dispensaries are illegal, some advocates say they’re permitted under provisions allowing for designated care providers.

At least two other cases involving Spokane-area medical marijuana distributors also have been filed. In one, Darren J. McCrea was offered a plea bargain in which he received no jail time and agreed to let police keep $30,000 seized from his home. The other involves Shupe’s former business partner and unsuccessful Spokane City Council candidate Christopher P. Stevens, who was promised a reduced criminal charge in exchange for his testimony against Shupe.

“The prosecutor is alone on his opinion in this, and his opinion could cost the county a lot of money,” said Charles Wright, co-owner of the THC Pharmacy on South Perry Street. “If he wants to be the Darth Vader in this … go for it.”

Wright said he gets calls every day from people across the country wanting to know more about his business and looking for advice. He said writers for a national marijuana magazine recently visited several dispensaries in Spokane.

Wright’s dispensary opened about four months ago and operates as a co-op, selling dozens of strains of marijuana, as well as baked products like muffins and brownies. Everything is produced and owned by other patients, and customers receive a card explaining the medicinal value of the product they buy. Smith said his customer base of 717 patients – verified through doctor’s prescriptions – includes lawyers, doctors and other respected professionals. Larger dispensaries in town have as many as 8,000 patients, he said.

“We have families who depend on us,” Wright said. “These are intelligent, self-sustaining adults. They don’t come in here with their welfare checks.”

Although one of the Spokane Police Department’s top goals this year is to arrest 16 major drug dealers, Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said detectives are waiting for “a clear direction” from prosecutors before proceeding. But drug detectives still consistently seize marijuana grows and arrest suspected drug dealers, and Detective Larry Bowman said they are not trained to investigate dispensaries differently than other drug operations.

Spokane Valley police Chief Rick VanLeuven, who sat through much of the testimony at Shupe’s trial this week, said he’s “well aware” of several dispensaries operating in the city.

Legal arguments surrounding dispensaries have focused on ambiguity in the law, which allows someone to provide marijuana to one prescription holder “at any one time.”

Grasso said the “at any one time” argument is irrelevant. He said the law is written to allow marijuana production and possession “for the exclusive benefit of a qualifying patient. Nowhere does it allow for the sale of marijuana,” he said. “If the Legislature wanted dispensaries to be set up, they would have provided it.”

Although dispensary operators frequently argue that they’re providing a needed service for the sick and dying, Grasso said the medicinal value of marijuana doesn’t matter.

“It’s not a moral issue; it’s a legal issue,” he said of the decision to prosecute dispensary operators. “They operate illegally, and they’re all subject to prosecution.”

Staff writer Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.


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