Opinion

Storefront marijuana dispensaries in Federal Way? | Andy Hobbs

A local senior citizen wants to open a storefront medical marijuana dispensary in Federal Way.

She already runs a mobile medical marijuana clinic, meeting patients at random locations in her non-descript economy car. At one time, she was helping nearly 300 people.

"I do make money on this, obviously, but I can't put it on my income taxes," said the woman, who requested anonymity.

Her "business" is on a list given to patients after they receive a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana. She verifies each patient's permit before selling, she said. Her youngest patient: A 17-year-old with lymphoma.

With a storefront dispensary, she can operate in the open with police protection, she said.

Before dismissing her idea as half-baked, consider the movement that's already in motion.

Last month, the Obama administration announced a policy that medical marijuana users and suppliers would not be arrested as long as they conform to state laws. This policy is seen as another step toward reforming marijuana laws across the country.

In June, The Mirror ran a five-part series about medical marijuana's status in Washington. Two sources from the series came out of the woodwork following the federal announcement. One source who runs an Eastside clinic said he's cooking up an initiative that would allow state-licensed dispensaries and growers. If it materializes, the initiative could serve as a master template for states without medical marijuana rights. Another source from the series, a Federal Way resident gifted in cultivation, wondered how the city would respond if he opened a legal storefront clinic.

In Federal Way, it is unclear how medical marijuana dispensaries fit within city and state zoning codes. Economic development director Patrick Doherty said more research is needed to determine requirements for such an untested proposal.

Nationwide, mainstream attitudes toward marijuana are changing. Medical marijuana laws have passed in 14 states, including Washington. Arguments against decriminalization or even full-scale legalization often cite the medical platform as a "Trojan horse" for marijuana dealers. Such is the case in California, where storefront marijuana dispensaries flourish — and scoring a doctor's recommendation is as easy as having a hangnail.

That road is rockier in Washington state. In September, Spokane police raided and shut down one marijuana dispensary. Officials in Mountlake Terrace rejected a recent business application for what would be the state's first for-profit storefront dispensary, according to the Everett Herald.

State law may offer some protection and rights for patients, but the real debate over marijuana is aimed at people who use the drug for recreation rather than medicine.

This month, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a University of Washington student has helped shift the medical ideology on cannabis. Sunil Aggarwal wrote a 395-page Ph.D. dissertation titled "The Medical Geography of Cannabinoid Botanicals in Washington State: Access, Delivery and Distress." Aggarwal's groundbreaking research played a role in the American Medical Association's recent recommendation to change the federal classification of cannabis. As a Schedule I substance, doctors cannot prescribe cannabis, and medical research is hindered.

"That legal classification has basically produced all these state medical marijuana laws," Aggarwal told The Mirror last June. "I don't need a clinical anecdote to convince me of cannabis's medical utility."

A change in legal classification, coupled with other cannabis decriminalization efforts, could add millions of dollars to state budgets. In 2010, Senate Bill 5615 will go before Washington state legislators. If passed, the bill would decriminalize adult possession from a crime to a civil infraction — and potentially save $16 million, with $1 million in new revenue, according to the bill's sponsors. Some of that money would go toward drug treatment and prevention services.

The nation's top cash crop already thrives in the underground economy for both recreational and medical purposes. And it may be a while before storefront marijuana dispensaries open in Federal Way. Regardless, the notion of a legitimate cannabis business sounds less extreme today than it would have 10 years ago — and more extreme than it will 10 years from now.

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