Federal Way enacts moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries | Legislature approves licensing bill
By CASEY J. OLSON
Federal Way Mirror reporter
April 22, 2011 · Updated 9:05 AM
There will be no legal medical marijuana dispensaries within the city of Federal Way, at least for the next six months.
The Federal Way City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a six-month emergency moratorium regarding the dispensaries. The measure directs the city clerk not to accept applications for business licenses or other documents from any medical marijuana organizations.
“The moratorium is needed to protect public safety and allow time for the state and federal agencies to get the issue sorted out,” said Mayor Skip Priest in a news release. “Time is of the essence to protect property owners and city staff.”
The council’s swift action was prompted by a bill that passed Thursday in the state Legislature, which seeks to legalize dispensaries. But, according to city officials, Senate Bill 5073 conflicts with federal drug laws and leaves cities vulnerable on several fronts. The bill awaits a signature or veto from the governor.
“Federal Way’s primary concerns center on the potential for ‘grandfathering’ marijuana dispensaries whose owners and/or operators have criminal backgrounds,” city spokesman Chris Carrel wrote in a press release. He added that the dispensaries create “the possibility of opening city employees and landowners to federal prosecution.”
Last week, a pair of United States attorneys notified Gov. Chris Gregoire that the proposed state legislation would violate federal law. The letter noted that state employees and, by extension, local officials who regulate dispensaries under the state law would be open to federal prosecution. The attorneys noted that landowners who rent to marijuana dispensaries would be subject to prosecution.
Also, under the proposed state legislation, dispensaries who submit a letter of intent to the city by May 1 would be “grandfathered” while the state developed rules to take effect in 2013.
The grandfathering provision would effectively prevent Federal Way from conducting the normal criminal background checks it conducts for all business license applicants and prevent the city from denying those applications, according to Carrel.
“This is a particular concern for the city since several owners and/or operators of marijuana dispensaries in the city also have serious criminal backgrounds,” he wrote.
There are three medical marijuana dispensaries operating in Federal Way. All three had applied for business licenses and were denied.
The council’s vote on the moratorium comes a day after a hearing examiner upheld the city’s denial of a business license to Conscious Care Cooperative, one of the dispensaries operating in Federal Way. Businesses operating in Federal Way without a business license face criminal prosecution and civil fines of up to $100 per day, according to the city.
Hearing Examiner Phil Olbrechts, who was hired by the city, ruled on Monday that Federal Way was within its boundaries to deny the business license on the basis that the cooperative will distribute marijuana in violation of state and federal law.
Peter Beckwith, the city’s assistant attorney, represented Federal Way. Beckwith questioned City Clerk Carol McNeilly and Police Cmdr. Stan McCall about the steps regarding the denial of the business license application and the evidence acquired of illegal activities.
“The business application was denied because it is the belief of the city that Conscious Care was going to distribute marijuana, which is an illegal act under state and federal law,” Beckwith said last month.
According to the examiner’s findings of fact, in researching the company, the city clerk discovered that one of the persons listed as the business owner had an outstanding drug warrant.
Conscious Care’s attorneys, Abe Ritter and Aaron Pelley, argued that the business license denial was not done in a timely manner. Pelley said that the city is presuming that the co-op is operating illegally, even though no one has been convicted of a crime.
“The important point, as it seems to be missed by the city, is that to be arrested or accused does not make one guilty of a crime,” Pelley said at the hearing last month. “To accuse someone of a crime is simply that, an accusation. So is it illegal to possess marijuana? Yes, it is true that it can be found to be illegal to possess marijuana. It is a jury who’s going to decide who’s convicted and who is guilty of criminal conduct.”
The city rejected the business licenses in March. City code allows a license to be denied or revoked if it is determined a business is conducting illegal activity. This premise was used as a basis for rejecting applications by Cascade Medical Center LLC and Conscious Care Cooperative. The businesses would provide qualified medical marijuana patients with a supply of cannabis in exchange for a donation.
The city also filed misdemeanor criminal charges on March 25 against Terry A. Tackett of the GAME Collective, another Federal Way dispensary, for operating a business without a license, according to Carrel. If convicted, Tackett could face a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to Carrel.
GAME manager Brionne Corbray told The Mirror that the collective had applied for a license with the city in early January and received no confirmation. “We do everything possible to make sure that we are within the law. We are here to help people and people need it (in Federal Way),” Corbray told The Mirror in March. “It is unfortunate that the city of Federal Way officials feel that the medical marijuana collectives are illegal and are unwilling to issue GAME a business license. ... I think it’s just a shame that some Federal Way officials choose politics over people.”
Added Corbray: “Hopefully the citizens of Federal Way will become more active and vocal on the issue of medical marijuana collectives in their community. Sick people should be treated with respect.”
Conscious Care Cooperative manager Brad Ecklund said the dispensary will stay open and appeal to the city council.
“Federal Way has been very civil about this in regards to the way they’ve treated us,” Ecklund said. “I’m not optimistic that the city of Federal Way is forward thinking enough to change their minds on this.”
Ecklund said he has faith in the medical marijuana movement that’s gaining momentum nationwide. For now, he awaits the pending legislation in Olympia that will determine the fate of the state’s dispensaries.
“Hopefully, the Legislature will come through,” he said. “At the end of the day, we just want a system that works for the patients, the law enforcement and the communities, and I think that’s coming.”
Federal Way joins several other Washington cities that have enacted moratoriums on medical marijuana dispensaries. Last week, Hoquiam and Mountlake Terrace passed similar moratoriums, while earlier in the year, Edmonds, Port Orchard and Yelm did the same.
State law allows the city council to enact interim moratoriums for up to six months. Emergency moratoriums require unanimous council consent, and the city must hold a public hearing on the moratorium within 60 days. A public hearing is set for the May 17 city council meeting, according to Carrel.
Contact Federal Way Mirror reporter Casey J. Olson at email@example.com or 253-925-5565 ext. 5056.