Prosecutors and municipalities in Thurston County are trying to find their way through a maze of legal questions raised by the state’s medical marijuana law.

Prosecutors and municipalities in Thurston County are trying to find their way through a maze of legal questions raised by the state’s medical marijuana law.

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Thurston County prosecutors are weighing cases against four local providers, having already charged the proprietors of one marijuana collective in Olympia.

Meanwhile, the City of Lacey is trying to close two outlets that say they are legally providing marijuana to patients under the state’s “collective gardens” provision passed by the Legislature last year. In Olympia, officials have taken no action to close a collective that opened downtown in April.

The controversy made headlines when the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force raided five medical marijuana collectives Nov. 15, leading to 17 arrests.

The five collectives were the ones law enforcement agencies were aware of in the county, a spokesman said in November.

Legal Marijuana Dispensary and Cannabis Clubs – (Medical Marijuana Dispensaries at THC Finder) showed 11 outlets operating in the Olympia area last week. Searches turned up 18 in the Tacoma area and 164 in the Seattle area.

Prosecutors have charged the proprietors of The Olympia Patient Resource Center, 420 Steele St. in Olympia, with 19 counts, including unlawful manufacture of marijuana, unlawful use of a building for drug purposes, and unlawful possession and delivery of marijuana near a school bus stop.

The proprietors, John Muise, 40, and Terrell Mizell, 33, pleaded not guilty. Their center closed for good after the raid; the other four establishments have reopened.

Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim said prosecutors are reviewing evidence concerning the other four raided outlets, and their proprietors “likely” will face charges. Capt. Dave Johnson of the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force declined to say whether more raids were imminent.

In Lacey, the city has moved to shut down medical marijuana collectives. In December, the City Council upheld the denial of a business license application by the collective Lacey Cross, which appealed the denial in Superior Court.

The city also has sent “cease and desist” letters informing Lacey Cross and Cannabis Outreach Services that they must close. They are in violation of the city’s municipal code because they have no business licenses. Assistant City Attorney David Schneider said the two outlets have yet to be cited for operating without a license.

In Olympia, the city has denied or revoked business licenses to medical marijuana collectives but taken no steps to close or sanction them. Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said the City Council has taken no formal position about what, if anything, to do about the issue and is referring the question to its Land Use Committee.

Buxbaum and Lacey Mayor Virgil Clarkson say the Legislature has put local municipalities in a difficult position by passing ambiguous medical marijuana statutes that conflict with state and federal laws that make it illegal to buy or sell marijuana.

State law recognizes that some patients benefit from medical marijuana and makes it legal for them to possess medical marijuana. But Tunheim said the state’s “collective gardens” provision conflicts with federal and state laws.

“We need the state to clarify the issue,” Buxbaum said. “The city is challenged by the ambiguities that are inherent in the state law.”

Added Clarkson, “We need a law that is clear, concise, precise and enforceable.”

The Healing Center and Cannabis Outreach Services are operating lawfully under the “collective gardens” provision of the state’s medical cannabis statute, said their attorney, Seattle marijuana-legalization advocate Douglas Hiatt.

According to Hiatt, establishments such as The Healing Center and Cannabis Outreach Services do not need business licenses because, unlike say a 7-Eleven, they cannot be used by ordinary members of the public to buy a good or service. Only “qualifying medical patients” can enter a collective, for example, he said.

Under the state’s “collective gardens” provision passed by the Legislature in July, “qualifying patients may create and participate in collective gardens for the purpose of producing, processing, transporting and delivering cannabis for medical use.” However, the law allows only 10 patients to participate in a single community garden “at any time.”

It also limits how much marijuana can be possessed or grown in a collective garden. Additionally, cannabis from a collective garden can go only to qualifying patients participating in the collective.

Hiatt said his clients don’t run “dispensaries,” which are illegal under state law. Rather, they’re “access points” at which patients offer a donation to the collective garden in exchange for receiving marijuana, he said.

In 2011, legislators passed a bill to legalize dispensaries, but Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed it, citing conflicts with federal law. As a result, buying and selling marijuana remains illegal.

Hiatt said he has talked with Tunheim about the possibility of charges against his clients, Ciaran Wilburn of The Healing Center and Denny Coughlin at Cannabis Outreach Services. He said Tunheim hasn’t indicated how he will proceed. Hiatt said he invited the prosecutor to visit his clients’ collective gardens to show him they comply with state laws.

“There’s nothing going on there that voters didn’t want to have happen when they passed the damn law,” Hiatt said. “What’s the big deal?”

Hiatt said The Healing Center and Cannabis Outreach Services get their marijuana and other cannabis products from Washington sources he defined as medical marijuana “patients” as well as members of his clients’ collective gardens.

“Every single gram of cannabis that is here has been grown by a local patient,” said Coughlin, who operates Cannabis Outreach Services.

Hiatt said his clients’ sources for medical marijuana number in the hundreds. Hiatt interprets the state law as meaning 10 patients can revolve in and out of a single collective garden, allowing for more than 10 marijuana providers to participate.

“The whole thing is by the patients, for the patients,” Hiatt said. “It’s a closed system.”

Johnson of the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force disagrees with Hiatt’s interpretation of the 10-patients rule. Hiatt said he represents only clients involved in medical cannabis for the purpose of helping other medical marijuana patients.

“They give medicine away to people that can’t afford it,” Hiatt said.

Tunheim said he’s not unsympathetic to Hiatt’s argument against prosecution on grounds of compassion. He added that his office is mainly targeting proprietors of the “dispensaries,” not employees or patients.

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“I’m not totally ignoring the issue,” the prosecutor said, “but if evidence shows they’re operating in violation of the law, it’s our duty to go forward and prosecute.”

In King County, prosecutors won’t file charges “so long as it is clear that qualifying patients are distributing to other qualifying patients,” according to the policy of Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. If the operation is “a mere front for growing and distributing marijuana to those who are not ill, we will prosecute,” reads a memo distributed by his office.

Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist said his office does not prosecute operations that stay within the spirit of the state’s medical marijuana law. It does prosecute establishments operating as for-profit businesses under the guise of distributing medical marijuana to patients, or if they are a “front” for the illegal sale of marijuana to nonpatients, he said.

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” Lindquist said.

After the Thurston County prosecuting attorney charged the proprietors of The Olympia Patient Resource Center in early January, their attorney, Kent Underwood of Tacoma, said his clients would plead not guilty.

“I plan on showing they are in compliance with state law,” he said.

Underwood added that he objected to how the raid was handled. Court records state the raid was based on marijuana buys by undercover narcotics detectives who used legitimate marijuana authorization cards obtained using an assumed or “undercover” name.

“It sounds a little bit like fraud to me,” he said. “It’s disturbing when law enforcement impersonates a patient. I expect to investigate the apparent fraud on the part of the Police Department and the task force.”

Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Toynbee said it is not illegal for officers to use “ruses” in undercover operations.

Hiatt said he believes a jury can be convinced that their collective gardens are legal.

“If we have to, we can explain this to 12 members of the community, otherwise known as a jury,” he said.

Wilburn and Coughlin said they are afraid of facing criminal charges, but will keep their collective gardens open.

“We’re not closing down until they close us down,” Wilburn said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Ciaran Wilburn, proprietor of The Healing Center, helps medical marijuana user Audre Bonadea select the type she needs at the dispensary in downtown Olympia on Jan. 3.

News Hawk – 420 Warrior 420 MAGAZINE
Location: Washington State
Source: The News Tribune
Author: Jeremy Pawloski
Copyright: © Copyright 2012 Tacoma News, Inc