Voters in the state of Washington swarmed the polls last November, turning ballot boxes into hotboxes and decisively passing Initiative 502 by a 55-45 margin, joining Colorado as the first two states in the U.S. to legalize the recreational possession and use of marijuana by adults.
Enjoying a thriving medical marijuana program in place since 1998, the state is no stranger to the politics of pot use, and the city of Seattle alone has housed over 270 medical marijuana dispensaries. For the record, there are only half as many Starbucks coffee shops.
With the regulations regarding recreational cultivation, sales, possession, public intoxication and use of marijuana just being finalized nearly a full year after the bill was passed, many residents of the Emerald City are wondering what I-502 might mean for their already saturated marijuana market.
The Seattle City Council aimed to clear up any confusion in their meeting on Oct. 7 where they passed a bill which has drawn equal parts criticism and praise from the Pacific Northwest cannabis community.
In a landmark 8-0 decision, the council voted to set the example for not only the rest of the state of Washington, but for the rest of the nation by instituting a trailblazing recreational marijuana zoning ordinance in the city. The new zoning map limits potential recreational marijuana storefronts to industrial areas and out of popular tourist and family spots like Pioneer Square and around the sports stadiums.
The new city ordinance also restricts growing operations to a maximum of 20,000 square feet, as compared to Washington state law which would normally allow for up to 30,000 square feet. But other than those, and a few other minor changes, the Seattle City Council bill pretty much followed the roadmap laid out by I-502.
Despite the restrictions, half of the cannabis community seems to be recognizing the progress made in Seattle in regards to cannabis. The state plans to hand out 334 recreational marijuana licenses, which will be required for anyone who wants to open a recreational marijuana storefront in Washington. Estimates are that 21 of those licenses will take root in the city of Seattle.
These days, Seattle is estimated to have somewhere around 100 active medical marijuana dispensaries. Really, the addition of 21 new shops, catering to a slightly different clientele, in a city that has accommodated close to 300 dispensaries at a time, should have no impact on Seattle’s medical marijuana market.
The Seattle City Council, however, sees it differently.
In a letter sent to the governor on Sept. 30, the weed-hating council begged for help from the big bad medical patients. They plead: “If relatively easy access to medical cannabis continues, the goals and potential of Initiative 502 will be undermined…This could mean combining the general adult cannabis market and the medical cannabis market into a single, regulated system.”
A “single, regulated system” is just what they shot for with their latest zoning ordinance last week. Not only do the new zoning restrictions apply to prospective recreational weed outlets, but the council also tacked on a stipulation that the same restrictions would now apply to medical marijuana dispensaries as well. With its passage, a rift is forming in the local cannabis community, as medical marijuana patients and advocates see their long-standing rights being lumped in with a new set of standards put in place for a completely different law.
To add insult to injury, the city council’s vote also mandates that any medical marijuana dispensary that wishes to operate after Jan. 1, 2015 will have to have a state-issued license to do so, much like the recreational shops. The catch is, no such license exists.
Seattle’s diehard medical marijuana community fears seeing their neighborhood dispensaries being squeezed out by restrictive zoning, and moneyed interests in the recreational pot game who might only be looking to secure profits over patients. To many people who use cannabis as medicine, the strongest, stinkiest buds may not be what the doctor ordered. They may need tinctures or topical solutions, or specific edibles or strains – items which may not see shelf space in a profit-driven pot shop. They see the new laws as a threat to their safe access, and the non-existent licensing requirement as an unfair and unnecessary hoop to make valid patients and caregivers jump through.
Regarding the phantom-yet-necessary medical marijuana license from the state, Seattle city councilman and sponsor of the new bill, Nick Licata, fell short of restoring anyone’s confidence by stating, “We are leaving the door slightly open. There could be a different license from the state.”
Is the city council’s decision a step forward, as proponents for full legalization suggest?
Or is it a step backwards, as the city’s medical marijuana defenders argue?
The free market, it seems, may make the final call. In the meantime, Seattle’s World Famous Cannabis Farmer’s Market has re-opened for business, and is sure to help smokers find what they need while the debate rages on about recreational weed vs. medical marijuana.