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Originally published September 20, 2012 at 8:44 PM | Page modified September 21, 2012 at 11:38 AM

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Medical-pot allies tell DEA: Get off our backs

A month after federal authorities prompted local closure of 26 dispensaries, medical marijuana activists and their political allies protested in Seattle Thursday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The allies and the sellers of medical marijuana rallied Thursday against federal intervention, demanding local control over a plant that is simultaneously legal and illegal.

At a Seattle City Hall news conference, the political friends of marijuana denounced recent cease-and-desist letters sent by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which led to the closure of about two dozen of Seattle's 150-some medical-marijuana dispensaries.

"The federal action to close down the medical-cannabis providers is making our neighborhoods less safe," said Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, who recently proposed new regulations for the dispensaries.

The letters, sent in late August, went to the landlords of 26 local dispensaries which the DEA said operated within 1,000 feet of a school zone, threatening forfeiture if the businesses didn't shut down within 30 days.

Similar letters were sent in many of the 16 states that allow medical marijuana, fueling marijuana activists' frustration against the Obama administration. Under his administration, there have been at least 200 raids and 70 indictments against medical-marijuana providers in six states, according to data collected by Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group.

The City Hall news conference, and a rally at the federal courthouse in Seattle, coincided with protests in California, Arizona, Colorado and Washington, D.C.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said targeting dispensaries within school zones was a "subterfuge," questioning why dispensaries were more dangerous to youth than grocers, who recently began selling hard liquor.

"Our message to the federal government: Get off our backs. We're doing it right," said Goodman, a proponent of marijuana legalization.

State law does not clearly allow dispensaries, but the storefronts operate under a broad legal interpretation as networks of medical marijuana "collective gardens," which are legal. A 2011 state law empowers cities to regulate the businesses, resulting in a patchwork of ordinances and a clustering of dispensaries in marijuana-friendly Seattle.

Goodman said he and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, may reintroduce legislation to legalize and regulate dispensaries, depending on the outcome of the fall election, including Initiative 502, which would legalize and tax recreational sales of marijuana statewide.

DEA spokeswoman Jodie Underwood said no additional letters have been sent, but noted that federal law pre-empts state law when the two conflict. "The DEA enforces federal law, and we're going to continue to enforce federal law," she said.

At the courthouse rally, about 75 medical-marijuana providers and patients inveighed against the federal ban on marijuana, with stories of sick patients aided by cannabis. They held signs such as, "I'm a Business Owner Not a Criminal."

Many in the crowd opposed I-502, saying its approach to legalization is too restrictive, and a provision in the initiative against driving while stoned would result in drugged-driving convictions against patients.

"Legalization is more important now than it ever was before," said activist Don Skakie, who was collecting signatures for an alternative to I-502.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.

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