Opinion

Federal Way must discuss medical marijuana | Bob Roegner

There are four Federal Way City Council seats up for election this year. If you’re thinking about running, there are all kinds of issues you should become familiar with: public safety, economic development, building codes, streets, parks and ... marijuana.

This is one of those political debates that strikes a strident tone no matter which side you are on — whether marijuana should be legalized and taxed, or remain illegal. With polls over the past several years continuing to show more support, there seems little doubt that marijuana will become legal sometime in the next decade.

Rather than debating the issue throughout local coffee shops as the Legislature struggles with what the state law should be (and Federal Way leaders try and implement hazy state direction), we took a slight turn through the maze of business licenses, police enforcement and cancer. In the process, a quote about people’s appearance from the city’s police chief provided further distraction and changed the dynamic of the community debate.

In 1998, the public, by a significant margin, voted to approved the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. It allowed cancer patients to grow a limited amount of marijuana for their own use. It also allowed a designated provider to be the primary caregiver for one patient at a time. It is still illegal to possess or buy and sell. A bill that would have legalized and taxed marijuana did not get out of committee and is dead for this legislative session. Another bill that would protect medical users and legalize dispensaries has passed the Senate.

Federal Way recently denied a business license — based on city code — to two business that want to become dispensaries of medical marijuana. Without a business license, they cannot operate, although they can appeal to the city hearing examiner. Hearings are scheduled for this week and next week. The police department states it has received complaints from neighbors of the dispensaries about drug dealing, and appears concerned that due to the fuzzy nature of who qualifies for medical marijuana, people may be obtaining marijuana for medical purposes and then reselling it. Also, the dispensaries serve hundreds of patients, not just a few. The police acknowledge investigations have occurred, but hesitate to say much more.

It was under these circumstances that Police Chief Brian Wilson commented, in referring to dispensary customers, “they don’t look like cancer patients.” This set off a series of comments and letters throughout the community that suggested Wilson wasn’t sensitive to cancer patients.

The unfortunate fallout from this episode is that it moved the debate away from what the city and state policy should be — and how City Hall treats its residents with medical issues — to whether the police chief’s comments were appropriate.

The debate isn’t isolated to Federal Way. The Seattle Times published an editorial supporting the legalization and taxation of marijuana. With that came a visit from Seattle’s former police chief Gil Kerlikowske, who, in his new role as White House drug czar, spoke out strongly in response to legalization arguments. As a policy matter, Seattle sides with the cancer patients and pretty much leaves the dispensaries alone. Tacoma, which recently ordered 19 dispensaries to stop selling to patients, is waiting for the state to provide better direction. Those are political decisions. Belfair also has a dispensary. Belfair? Strange place for a dispensary.

Bremerton just denied business licenses to dispensaries for the same reason as Federal Way. The Port Orchard and Fife city councils have established a six-month moratorium on dispensaries. Those are both legal and political decisions.

Each of these cities has made decisions on what their policy should be. Each hopes for additional state guidance.

Here in Federal Way, let us join the debate about the issue and its consequences. Let’s talk about what kind of community we want and whether we want dispensaries. And if we do, under what conditions? Let’s talk about what our policies should be and what we want the mayor and council to tell the state Legislature which policy is best for our community. Let’s not get distracted from the real issue. Let us stipulate that we all care (including the police chief) about cancer patients and those with life-threatening illnesses, and that including them in the discussion is a necessity.

As for candidates for Federal Way City Council: What is your position? Do you want Seattle’s more liberal policy? Or do you favor Fife or Port Orchard’s moratoriums?

Are you comfortable with Federal Way’s denial of the dispensaries’ business license, or should we have a different policy? Would you have preferred that the mayor allow the business licenses to support cancer patients’ needs — while also putting the dispensary owners on notice that if police investigations determine that the medical marijuana is being resold, they would be prosecuted? How much direction should the state Legislature provide? Or should each city council have some latitude to establish policies that reflect local community standards?

Lastly council candidates, did you really think running for office would be easy?

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