City upholds moratorium on medical marijuana gardens
July 26, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Leaders intend to ‘give the city time’ to establish rules
In the emotion-laced discussion about medical marijuana rules in Issaquah, stage IV melanoma survivor Kathy Sparks added a patient’s perspective to the debate.
Before the City Council decided July 18 to uphold a moratorium on medical marijuana collective gardens, Sparks, a Tiger Mountain resident, asked members to consider patients unable to attend the hearing.
“There are lots of patients in stretchers and wheelchairs who can’t be here tonight to say these things,” she said.
The council opted in a 6-1 decision — after poignant pleas from medical marijuana users and strikingly personal stories from council members — to maintain a moratorium enacted last month. Councilman Mark Mullet voted against the moratorium.
Under state law, a city can impose a moratorium on medical marijuana collective gardens as leaders consider possible land-use or zoning changes. The moratorium is in effect for up to six months, although council members urged city staffers to formulate possible solutions as soon as possible.
Recent changes in state law prompted the decision. So, too, did the opening late last year of a medical marijuana collective in a downtown Issaquah neighborhood.
Though medical marijuana dispensaries remain illegal under state law, hazy rules surround patient collectives.
Washington law allows up to 10 qualifying patients to join together and form a collective garden of up to 45 plants, so long as the marijuana is not visible from public spaces.
“Our current city code is silent on this matter, and state law further then authorizes cities to impose a moratorium, such as the one that’s being adopted here tonight, to give the city time to review how other jurisdictions are dealing with this issue and to determine what and when regulations should be adopted by our city,” city Planning Manager Dave Favour told council members.
The council heard from a handful of supporters of the Issaquah medical-marijuana operation, GreenLink Collective, at a public hearing before the decision. Other GreenLink supporters, clad in Green-Giant-green T-shirts, packed the council chamber.
Issaquah resident Ryan Mashek’s mother uses medical marijuana to relieve pain from pulmonary hypertension.
“It’s very difficult for my mom to drive anywhere or go anywhere, so having medical marijuana available directly in her community as a pain medication is very important to her, and she needs to have access to that,” he said at the hearing.
In the decision, council members sought to balance medical, safety and social concerns about medical marijuana operations.
“We have all heard of the safety issues that occur when marijuana is allowed into a community,” Issaquah Police Chief Paul Ayers told council members. “Not everyone is looking at this issue from a medical perspective. Many are looking at this as an opportunity to commit crimes in our community.”
Patchwork of laws creates confusion
State legislators sought to clarify medical marijuana rules in the 2011 regular legislative session, but Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed parts of the bill after federal prosecutors threatened to charge state employees for carrying out such a law. The post-veto law took effect July 22.
Issaquah officials face another layer of confusion because marijuana in all forms remains illegal under federal law.
“It’s unfortunate the federal and the state governments have left cities like Issaquah in a difficult gray area of conflicting laws,” Council President John Traeger said.
Washington Initiative 692, passed in 1998, allows people suffering from certain medical conditions to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana. Under state law, physicians can recommend — but not prescribe — medical marijuana for patients.
City Attorney Wayne Tanaka said the Issaquah moratorium does not impact rules for medical marijuana users. Qualified patients can still cultivate marijuana for personal use.
Instead, “it is intended to give the city time to consider the implications of this new concept here in Washington and decide whether or not any regulations or restrictions should be placed on its particular use,” he said.
Still, moratorium opponents said the action creates a barrier, especially for patients confined to wheelchairs or unable to cultivate marijuana due to physical limitations.
“You already have members in this community who are involved in medical marijuana distribution and helping patients at a collective,” Issaquah resident Joe Huffman said. “A lot of us are affluent. We can go to Seattle. We can go somewhere else. This is our community. We want to help those people here in our community.”
‘Our No. 1 priority is safety’
Lydia George, a GreenLink founder and director, sat next to the police chief at the hearing. In remarks to the council, she said patient-run collectives offer a safe alternative to other marijuana purveyors.
“We also believe access to medical cannabis through a safe, legal collective garden helps prevent the formation of underground activities, which can promote illegal drugs in our area,” she continued. “At GreenLink Collective, our No. 1 priority is safety. We believe if you take away this legal access point, that that need will be filled by illegal means. That creates a burden for law enforcement, and we don’t want to see that happen.”
The council decision occurred on the same day the Seattle City Council adopted rules to require medical marijuana dispensaries to acquire business licenses and adhere to city zoning rules.
Meanwhile, Federal Way, Kent, North Bend and other cities clamped down on medical-marijuana operations in recent months.
“I feel like Seattle really took it on its shoulders to find something that works for their community,” said Jake George, a GreenLink founder and director. “I don’t think adopting someone else’s model and taking a time out and figuring this out, seeing how it works in other cities, I don’t think we’re going to take another model and apply it to the city of Issaquah.”
Issaquah resident Gary Clarke, the lone supporter of the moratorium to address Issaquah council members, recalled seeing the excesses in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s.
“I think we’ve all had friends that got into marijuana and other, harder stuff,” he said. “I don’t see it as a medical product.”
Council searches for clarity
The council discussion about the moratorium also included personal accounts about medical marijuana use and wrenching health care decisions.
“Some of you know I watched my mother die three years ago from pancreatic cancer,” Councilman Tola Marts said. “In fact, I took a leave of absence from work and spent the last two months of her life with her. So, I know the value of medicines that manage pain and appetite, and the affect they can have on outcomes and quality of life.”
Despite possible benefits of medical marijuana use, the city must address questions about medical marijuana operations during the moratorium, he added.
“What, if any, are the issues with locating collective gardens in an area frequented by small children?” Marts said. “Earlier this year, a dispensary started operations two blocks from my son’s elementary school, and at least on first glance, that didn’t seem like an appropriate location.”
(Issaquah Valley Elementary School is near GreenLink.)
Mullet, the lone holdout against the moratorium, said patients’ accounts influenced the decision.
“For me, the most impressive argument was the one around the fact that people are losing their ability to access medication and that six months is a very long time for these people,” he said.
Mullet joined other council members June 20 to approve the moratorium as part of a unanimous decision.
The emotional testimony resonated, too, among council members supporting the moratorium.
Councilman Fred Butler handed a business card to Lydia George after the hearing and asked to tour the collective.
“We have, in my view, an obligation of due diligence and taking the time to do it right,” he said before the council decision. “I don’t know what right is. There are a number of questions that I believe need to be answered, and I think we need to have a broader discussion around this important community issue.”
Councilman Joshua Schaer called on leaders in Olympia and Washington, D.C., to overhaul marijuana regulations.
“Our national and state leaders need to fix this,” he said. “They need to fix it with complete and comprehensive reform of drug policy and the criminal code. It’s an issue of personal liberty and an issue of health care, as individuals spoke to this evening.”
Still, the decision to focus on medical marijuana in Issaquah rankled some speakers.
“I can tell you right now, you would never dream of sitting on this council and having a moratorium on Percocet or any painkillers that are given by prescription by medical doctors for people that are in pain,” Issaquah resident Kevin Mashek said before the council decision. “Those drugs, those OxyContin drugs, have caused more damage criminalwise.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.