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Originally published Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 9:32 AM

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Medical-marijuana proposal abandoned; dispensaries now 'clearly illegal'

An intensive effort to overhaul Washington's medical-marijuana law died Tuesday in Olympia, leaving cities and law enforcement to muddle through changes that will clip short the boom in dispensaries.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An intensive effort to overhaul Washington's medical-marijuana law died Tuesday in Olympia, leaving cities and law enforcement to muddle through changes that will clip short the boom in dispensaries.

Medical-marijuana champion Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles said lawmakers were too focused on the state budget to fix confusing provisions left over from Gov. Chris Gregoire's partial veto of an earlier bill.

"By far, this represents the greatest disappointment of my legislative career," she said in a statement. She plans to take up the issue again next year.

As a result, a law will take effect in July that allows 45-plant collective gardens for the first time while undercutting dispensaries' best legal defense. Cities around the state will have to choose between tolerating dispensaries or cracking down.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that as a result of Gregoire's veto, the law took "a significant step backward."

"The commercial dispensaries jumped the gun, and are out aggressively marketing their services. Whatever gray area used to exist to allow that is gone now. They are clearly illegal as of July," he said.

The new law "puts cops and prosecutors back in the business of making the medical-marijuana law work. I don't think that's fundamentally the law that cops and prosecutors should be in. It should be a medical issue, not a law-enforcement issue," Satterberg said.

Dispensaries popped up over the past year by seizing on vague patient-provider definitions in the 1998 voter-approved law.

Responding to concerns from police and cities about the uncontrolled dispensary boom, the Legislature passed a landmark law to legalize and regulate dispensaries and growers, create a central patient registry and provide arrest protection.

Gregoire vetoed most of the bill, citing a harsher tone from federal prosecutors that could potentially expose state regulators to arrest, even though that has not been seen in other states with legal dispensaries.

In Seattle, City Attorney Pete Holmes said the new collective gardens will be a headache for police and could lead to more arrests of patients. He has asked the Seattle Police Department for an inventory of operating dispensaries — estimated to be at least 50 — with the idea that the city could try to "grandfather" them in.

But enacting a city-based regulatory scheme could run Seattle afoul of federal prosecutors, he said, and it could make Seattle a magnet.

"We're back to the worst-case scenario," said Holmes, an advocate of legalization. "We've only had a few hours to get used to that again."

Cities, including Shoreline, Lake Forest Park and Federal Way, have already begun trying to shut down dispensaries through civil actions. Satterberg said that is his preferred way to respond, instead of criminal charges.

Tacoma had put on hold cease-and-desist letters to 42 dispensaries pending the outcome in Olympia, but now must decide what to do, said spokesman Rob McNair-Huff.

In Kent, City Attorney Tom Brubaker said the city would decide how to deal with its four or five dispensaries soon.

"We've told these dispensaries that they're illegal, but haven't taken any stiff enforcement action," he said. "I'd just as soon they weren't in my town."

Scott Snyder, an attorney who advises a dozen suburban cities, including Issaquah and Redmond, said cities could take a mixed approach: denying business licenses while requiring dispensaries to pass fire and safety codes. "I think it's something most communities will get into gingerly within the vacuum we're in now," he said.

As cities sort it out, entrepreneurs still have ads on Craigslist seeking real estate to open dispensaries. Ben Livingston of the Cannabis Defense Coalition, a patient-advocacy group, said reality doesn't seem to be sinking in.

"What's next? Raids," he said. "The question, is who is going to be first. My money is the people who were bolder, more out there."

David Ahl helped open a nonprofit dispensary, Greenside Medical, on Seattle's Lake City Way Northeast on April 20, investing in a security system that includes a concrete-walled check-in booth and sophisticated alarm system.

He said shady dispensaries, or those opened purely for profit, already are shutting down. He sounded rattled. "I definitely know there's a big ax above my head," said Ahl, 26.

Another dispensary owner, Steve Saarich, filed a referendum Tuesday to roll back the law to its pre-session status, which would restore a legal defense for dispensaries. Sponsors must gather 120,577 voter signatures by late July for it to qualify for the November ballot, according to the Secretary of State's office.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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