Marijuana legalization in Washington is taking effect against a patchwork of conflicting city laws. Some cities don’t allow marijuana dispensaries. But Seattle began requiring business licenses for them last year. Some medical marijuana providers see benefits to playing by cities’ rules. Others are fighting their restrictions.
Criminal defense attorney Douglas Hiatt represents many medical marijuana providers. When Seattle began to require licenses for dispensaries last year, Hiatt told them he would sue and advise his clients not to comply.
In his lawsuit in King County Superior Court, Hiatt said medical marijuana providers should be exempt from normal business licensing. He said since marijuana is illegal under federal law, those license applications could be used by federal prosecutors. “If you have to fill out a business license for the city that says, 'I sell marijuana,'" he said, "well, you’re kind of incriminating yourself, aren’t you?”
But Hiatt didn’t get to make those arguments in court. His lawsuit was dismissed last Friday because he declined to name his plaintiffs. They are 13 dispensary owners whom he called John and Jane Doe. Hiatt said he’s not sure whether he’ll refile. He had hoped to use this lawsuit to challenge all attempts by cities in Washington to regulate marijuana providers. He said he had believed the Seattle City Attorney’s Office would be a more friendly adversary. “I thought we had an agreement to get this thing straightened out and do it on the merits and not screw around," he said, "but I guess I was wrong.”
President Barack Obama’s comments Friday calling marijuana enforcement in Washington and Colorado a low priority became public just prior to Hiatt’s court hearing. Kent Meyer with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office told the judge Obama’s comments show “the risk of federal prosecution diminishes as we speak.” Hiatt responded that federal law hasn’t changed.
But medical marijuana providers seem split on whether to go along with Seattle’s licensing rules.
Muraco Kyashna-tocha runs the Green Buddha Patient Co-op in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. She is also the director of the Evergreen State Cannabis Trade Association. She said she understands Hiatt’s fears about federal law. “I can appreciate that argument,” she said, but added, “I tend to follow a different track.”
She applied for a business license from Seattle and has been paying sales taxes for the past two years.
Kyashna-tocha said behaving like a legitimate business is the best way to win acceptance from local government and the public. And she said she is feeling safer in the wake of Initiative 502, which legalizes marijuana possession. “I’m one who believes in playing as much as possible with the system," she said. "Our state is shifting on the issue of cannabis.”
But even as I-502 may prompt more demand for marijuana, dispensary owners say available real estate is scarce. State and federal law prohibit dispensaries near certain facilities like schools. In January the Seattle City Council will look at designating areas for larger-scale marijuana operations.
This week the city of Everett will consider a nuisance ordinance to restrict dispensaries to industrial areas. Marijuana advocates are planning a protest Tuesday. The Everett City Council hearing and vote is scheduled for Wednesday.