Issaquah marijuana collective fights for license
April 19, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
The reception area at GreenLink Collective, a medical marijuana collective nestled on a leafy street in downtown Issaquah, resembles a doctor’s office.
The decision to incorporate soothing colors and a bubbling aquarium in the lobby is no coincidence.
Founders Jake and Lydia George, a husband-and-wife team, established GreenLink in a former daycare center late last year to furnish medical marijuana to patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other chronic conditions.
“Our goal has always been to create a safe, comfortable environment where people can feel that they are not scrutinized, that they are safe and that it’s consistent and there’s a resource for them,” Lydia George said.
GreenLink is in the midst of a legal battle for a city business license, despite the efforts to blend in. The city denied GreenLink’s application, because planners consider the nonprofit organization to be a drugstore or a pharmacy, and the neighborhood is not zoned for either type of business.
GreenLink appealed the decision to the hearing examiner, a municipal official responsible for certain development-related decisions, and is waiting for a hearing date.
Under city code, some nonprofit organizations and social services can set up in residential neighborhoods.
Aaron Pelley, a Seattle attorney representing GreenLink, said the zoning restriction should not apply to the collective.
“I presume that they’re going to make the argument that GreenLink most closely resembles a drugstore or a pharmacy, and that we would make the counterargument that they most resemble a social service or a nonprofit organization,” he said.
The decision and appeal came not long before state legislators approved a measure in mid-April to legalize and license dispensaries. Gov. Chris Gregoire refused to sign the bill and reached out to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week for “clear guidance” on the legislation. Marijuana, medical or otherwise, remains illegal under federal law.
Legislators seek to clear the air
Washington voters legalized medical marijuana in a 1998 ballot initiative — although the measure offered ambiguous language about medical marijuana dispensaries and left the Legislature to sort out any unanswered questions. The recent legislation aimed to clarify the ill-defined rules for dispensaries.
State Sen. Cheryl Pflug, a registered nurse and a 5th Legislative District Republican, supported the measure. (The district includes Issaquah and East King County.)
“It’s necessary in order to try to continue to allow access,” she said. “It’s been more than a decade, and as we’ve gone down the road, the evidence is even more significant that there are some people that really are not helped by anything else. This does work for some people pretty well.”
Initiative 692 allows people suffering from certain medical conditions to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana. Physicians can recommend — but not prescribe — medical marijuana for patients. The law does not allow for dispensaries, although relaxed enforcement prompted medical marijuana dispensaries to sprout in many cities.
“We agree with the will of the voters,” Lydia George said. “This is something that they wanted, and the doctors are a part of.”
The state Department of Health outlined supply limit guidelines for medical marijuana in 2008: 24 ounces of usable marijuana, plus 15 plants per person.
Days later, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg issued a memo to all local law enforcement agencies, saying “legitimate patients who qualify under the law if they reasonably adhere to the dictates of the statute” would not be prosecuted.
Issaquah Police Chief Paul Ayers said the guidelines from Satterberg offered clarity for local police departments.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to a law enforcement agency to put a lot of resources into solving a problem that will never be prosecuted,” Ayers said.
Confusion about the medical marijuana law lingers, despite efforts to clear the air.
Marijuana purveyors prompt concerns
Federal Way, Lake Forest Park, Shoreline and Tacoma cracked down on dispensaries in recent months after the general counsel for the Washington Cities Insurance Authority, a municipal-insurance risk pool, urged cities not to issue business licenses for dispensaries.
“It’s irresponsible of some cities to shut these things down and run them out of town, because they’re taking their most vulnerable citizens” and adding a burden for patients, Jake George said.
Issaquah, like many Washington cities, is a member of the municipal insurance organization.
“Issaquah has been very fair. They haven’t accused them of operating an illegal business. They’ve been very forthcoming that the issue with them is zoning,” Pelley said. “This is about one of the most civil and reasonable issues that I’ve dealt with.”
Pflug described the effort to address issues surrounding medical marijuana dispensaries and offer clear guidelines to law enforcement agencies as arduous.
“It’s one of those bills where every time you try to solve one problem, you open a Pandora’s box,” she said.
Ayers raised concerns about a storefront offering medical marijuana. The armed robbery last month of a West Seattle medical marijuana dispensary reminded customers and law enforcement officers of potential dangers.
“The business itself is not the crime issue,” Ayers said. “Anytime you have a cash business or you have a product business, whether you’re going in or coming out, a bad guy knows he can get something of value from you. That makes it problematic.”
GreenLink enacted steps to address some safety concerns. Patients must make appointments before dropping in to pick up medical marijuana, and the organization does not allow walk-in patients.
Otherwise, “you’ve got a full lobby of people you don’t know and you don’t know what their intentions are,” Jake George said.
Lydia George said cooperation among medical marijuana purveyors and law enforcement agencies is a key to success.
“We want to work with the law enforcement community here,” she said. “We have a lot of respect for it. They are our allies, just like we are theirs.”
Diverse clientele for medical marijuana
In addition to dried bud, medical marijuana is also available in tinctures, topical ointments and edible forms, such as cookies and, yes, brownies.
“The idea that people are leaving these places with pounds and pounds is really unrealistic,” Lydia George said.
Many patients arrive at GreenLink embarrassed and frightened. The clientele includes numerous elderly patients, and for some, marijuana is unfamiliar.
“These conditions affect everybody: young and old, mothers and fathers, doctors and lawyers,” Lydia George said. “It really doesn’t discriminate. I’m always surprised.”
The directors estimate most patients reside in Issaquah.
“There are people, all of whom have debilitating conditions, not one of whom chose to have that, not one of whom is excited,” Jake George said. “I guarantee you any of our patients would trade their condition away and let their authorization go with it. It’s not a club that people are excited to be a part of.”
Supporters said a shift in attitudes about marijuana is occurring in Washington, although opposition to outright legalization remains strong.
In a February editorial, the largest newspaper in the state, The Seattle Times, called for marijuana to be legalized in the Evergreen State. In March, John McKay, a former U.S. attorney in Seattle, said marijuana should be legalized.
The medical marijuana dispensary legislation in Olympia attracted some GOP support, including from Pflug and freshman Republican state Sen. Steve Litzow, another Issaquah representative.
GreenLink is not alone in the Issaquah area. Kind Alternative, a medical marijuana dispensary in Preston in unincorporated King County, opened in February.
Inside GreenLink, a board features the colorful names for medical marijuana offerings, such as Blue Dream and Dutch Treat. Jake George said the fanciful names belie patients’ medical conditions.
“We’re dealing with people that have serious conditions,” he said. “It’s not people with hangnails and sprained ankles.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.