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Originally published Tuesday, April 13, 2010 at 3:52 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Marijuana legalization is on the way

Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey says marijuana is moving toward legalization, and that it will change the world of those who have promoted it.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

The 30 marijuana plants are ready for harvest. Sunning themselves under grow lights in a room lined with white plastic, they are a lush green, with not a dead leaf on them. Their fist-sized buds bend each stem downward like branches laden with snow.

The secret grow operation supplies one of Seattle's oldest medical-marijuana dispensaries, Compassion in Action, in a Seattle industrial zone in a building with no sign. It offers marijuana smoking mixture, oil, cookies, peanut brittle and Rice Krispies bars to 3,300 patients.

Each patient has a letter from a physician certifying that he has multiple sclerosis, AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, intractable pain or one of the other conditions named in Washington law.

The dispensary has been here five years, and was in other places before that. Founder and longtime leader Dale Rogers says police and prosecutors know where it is.

The feds, too?

"I'm sure the feds know," he says. "Public officials know I'm trying to do this in good faith."

Originally Rogers kept no business records. It was too risky. In the past two years he has hired an accountant, put his growers on salary and begun reporting their pay to the IRS. He says controlling payments to growers allowed him to lower prices by $100 an ounce.

The operation is set up as a not-for-profit co-op. Appearances seem to confirm this. I see no gold chains or fancy cars. An employee jokes that Rogers owns only three pairs of pants.

Other dispensaries are more frankly commercial, some of them supplied from California.

"The California guys are entrepreneurs," says the co-op's attorney, Douglas Hiatt. "We're socialists, compared to those guys."

The whole ecosystem of medical marijuana here, cooperative and capitalist, operates under an umbrella of black-market prices that is not sustainable. Already dispensaries are operating openly in Los Angeles under the green cross, and in other places: I saw one two weeks ago in Garberville, along the Redwood Highway. In November, Californians will vote on a statewide ballot measure for full legalization.

Legalize marijuana, and the world-class farmers of the San Joaquin Valley will be cultivating hemp in big, flat, open fields. No one will have to pay $400 an ounce — and the grow-light guys will be gone. The Humboldt County entrepreneurs, with their small, secret plots in the woods, will fold up — which is why they are now passing out bumper stickers saying "Keep Pot Illegal."

When it comes, legalization in California will lower prices here. So would Washington Initiative 1068, a measure sponsored by Hiatt and others that may be on the statewide ballot here in November.

Then what? "Everyone worries about Philip Morris coming in," says Vivian McPeak, director of Seattle Hempfest. "But you can't hold freedom back for that reason."

The recent invasion and shooting at a marijuana grow operation raises another issue: security. "We're entering into a very scary, unstable time," says Rogers, who wants no part of gangland rule, either as a business operator or a patient.

Rogers, who uses marijuana to keep his AIDS medicine down and his appetite up, has worked for years for the social changes that are now happening. They will change the world of his growers and his "socialist" cooperative. Nevertheless, he says, "I'm calling for full legalization, and taxing."

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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