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Medical marijuana collective opens Federal Way branch; owner welcomes state taxation
Green Piece Alternative Medicine and Education (GAME) Collective may be Federal Way's first storefront medical marijuana dispensary.
In a strip mall off South 333rd Street and Pacific Highway South, most storefronts bear Korean names except for one newbie. A sign on the plain glass door gives a phone number, hours of operation and a list of medicated edibles like cookies. Qualified clients can buy medical-grade cannabis inside the studio-like room, where mirrors line one wall, legal documents hang on another wall, a TV hums in the ceiling corner and lounge chairs sit on the floor. On a desk is a pipe shaped like a Seahawks helmet, with a short length of hose and a handwritten note granting permission to try it.
Brionne Corbray opened the third branch of his collective Oct. 1 in Federal Way. The collective, with two branches in Seattle, advertises openly online and in alternative publications.
In mid-December, the Washington State Department of Revenue announced plans to collect a sales tax from marijuana dispensaries. Corbray welcomes a sales tax because he can make more money. In fact, he would rather be a retail outlet store than a non-profit, he said.
"It's the new gold rush," said Corbray, 46, of Seattle. "We should be paying taxes. That means they're acknowledging we're legal businesses."
His clientele ranges in age from 19 to 87, he said, and all must have a verified recommendation from a qualified health care provider to do business. The collective often donates to low-income or gravely ill clients, he said.
"Collectives keep the crime rate down — keeps it off the street," he said. "I don't think it should be legal like cigarettes."
State laws for possession and gardening offer a defense for medical marijuana providers, and according to Corbray, there is no shortage of supplies.
"I make sure I stay within the guidelines of the law," he said.
Corbray went through proper state channels to register, and staff in Olympia "helped me word it the right way," he said. He is registering for a nonprofit business license with Federal Way, as required by city code, he said.
He chose Federal Way to meet demand for marijuana in South King County and Pierce County. With a local client base of about 100, he said, the collective is growing every day. So far, he has not been hassled by the city or law enforcement.
"If they want to find us, they can find us," he said, confident of King County and Prosecutor Dan Satterberg's established tolerance toward medical marijuana. "Do I think we're here to stay? Yes."
Upon hearing about GAME Collective's new branch, city council member Linda Kochmar said medical marijuana dispensaries belong in Holland or California, not in Federal Way.
"I do know that it helps people with late-stage cancer, and God bless them, anything they can do to relieve their pain," she said, adding that marijuana should be a highly-controlled substance, and that a dispensary makes the drug easier to abuse. "I want my community to be a healthy, wholesome community that encourages family life. As far as smoking pot and the ability to get it, I'm going to be very much against something like that."
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, although 15 states have medical marijuana laws on the books.
The number of marijuana dispensaries in Washington state is unknown. Earlier this month, the State Department of Revenue sent letters to about 90 dispensaries, seeking retail sales taxes on medical marijuana (GAME Collective did not receive a letter). Dispensaries are not exempt from sales taxes or the business and occupation (B&O) tax, the letter said, because state law does not authorize marijuana as a prescription drug. The letter ends by asking dispensaries to call the department and register.
"We're simply asserting that the taxes should be collected," said Mike Gowrylow, communications director for the department, adding the assertion was intended to educate marijuana providers about tax laws, and does not differentiate between legal or illegal activity. The letter was sent after a few medical marijuana dispensaries contacted the department about paying sales taxes, Gowrylow said. "Our intent was never to toss this into the debate about whether or not something is legitimate because tax has to be collected," he said. "That's something for the Legislature or courts to decide."
According to an AP report, Colorado and some California cities tax marijuana, with Maine and Washington, D.C., planning to collect taxes when their dispensary laws take effect. In 2009, Oakland, Calif., became the first city to approve taxing proceeds on medical marijuana; the mail-in ballot passed with 80 percent voter approval. One of the measure's key supporters, the owner of a cannabis club in Oakland, expected to pay more than $350,000 this year, according to a CNN report. However, Oakland continues to face legal challenges in its efforts to tax marijuana sales. A proposal for statewide legalization in California failed at the polls in 2010.
Sensible Washington, a group advocating legalization, recently bought a billboard ad on Interstate 5 in Fife. The sign reads "Because drug dealers don't ID. Legalize in 2011." Sensible Washington sponsored a legalization initiative that failed to gather enough signatures for the 2010 general election.
Don Skakie, state volunteer director for Sensible Washington, said more than 6,000 people have signed up to volunteer for another petition drive in 2011. Last year, a peak of 1,500 volunteers gathered signatures for the initiative, which sought to remove civil and criminal penalties related to marijuana. Sensible Washington will pursue basically the same initiative as in 2010, Skakie said. Volunteers must gather 241,153 valid signatures in order to place the Cannabis Reform Act on the statewide ballot.
Sensible Washington plans to file the initiative in January and will start collecting signatures in February, Skakie said. Last year's effort collected about 186,000 signatures, about two-thirds of the required total, which is determined by 8 percent of the number of voters in the last governor's election.
"It's going to be a matter of educating the public that it's in their best interest to vote yes," said Skakie, a Renton resident and previous King County director for Sensible Washington. "We'll have absolutely no problem getting it on the ballot."
In 1998, Washington state voters approved a law that removed criminal penalties and established a defense for qualified patients who possess or cultivate cannabis for medicinal use.
In 2008, the "60-day" supply for patients was defined as 24 ounces and 15 plants; both numbers have attracted intense debate from medical marijuana advocates. The law allows patients to exceed these limits if the patient can prove medical need, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Washington's medical marijuana laws help patients with a legal defense in local or state courts. Federal laws do not recognize the medical use of marijuana.