City Council sets rules for medical marijuana gardens
December 13, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
In a decision meant to balance concerns about patients’ rights and public safety, City Council members set rules Dec. 5 for medical marijuana collective gardens to limit such operations near schools, parks and other collective gardens.
City planners spent months collecting input from medical marijuana patients, law enforcement officers, elected leaders and residents to craft the ordinance. The result is a milestone in the effort to clarify jumbled rules for medical marijuana and untangle different local, state and federal rules for the drug.
The measure requires a 1,000-foot buffer between a collective garden and a community center, school or another collective garden. The ordinance also set a 500-foot buffer between a collective garden and park, preschool or daycare center.
The ordinance also established a limit of a single collective garden per site.
Leaders also spelled out security requirements for collective gardens — measures meant to alleviate concerns about collective gardens as possible magnets for crime. Operators must install a security system and cameras onsite.
In addition, applicants for a collective garden safety license through the city must undergo a background check by the Issaquah Police Department. The city can then deny applications to people convicted of a felony drug law violation in the past 10 years.
The decision came after pleas from medical marijuana patients, a closed-door executive session and questions about the ordinance’s nuts and bolts from council members.
The council adopted the rules in a 6-1 decision greeted by applause from the 30 or so medical marijuana advocates in the audience. Councilwoman Eileen Barber dissented.
“I think that both the expansion of medical knowledge, as well as the cause of personal liberty, has always increased in this country,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said. “When you look back over time, there have been fewer and fewer restrictions that have been put in place on matters of personal health care choices.”
Barber attempted to send the measure back to committee for additional review, but other council members thwarted the idea. Marijuana possesses medical merits, although the conflicts between state and federal law mean the city needs more time to review possible consequences from a collective garden ordinance, Barber said after the meeting.
Sorting out conflicts in federal, state law
The ordinance is expected to go into effect Dec. 19 and, until then, the moratorium remains in place. The city cannot accept license or permit applications for collective gardens in the meantime.
The process to craft a medical marijuana ordinance started after a patient-run medical marijuana operation, GreenLink Collective, opened downtown last year. The directors applied for a city business license, and the subsequent denial launched a discussion about if or how to regulate medical marijuana operations in Issaquah.
State legislators attempted to sort out medical marijuana rules earlier in the year, but Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed key provisions. The remaining portions allowed Issaquah and other Evergreen State cities to set zoning rules for collective gardens.
Marijuana, for medical uses or otherwise, remains illegal under federal law. In Washington, a voter-approved state law permits medical uses for patients suffering from debilitating conditions, such as AIDS and cancer. Washington and 15 other states — plus Washington, D.C. — allow health care providers to authorize medical marijuana as a treatment.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said prosecuting medical marijuana patients is not a priority, but federal prosecutors continue to pursue marijuana operations using state medical marijuana laws as cover for illegal activities.
Enforcing state-level medical marijuana laws is left to local and state law enforcement officers, despite the obvious conflict between state and federal regulations.
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 — the drug for patients.
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.
(In a decision hailed by medical marijuana advocates, Gregoire called on federal officials Nov. 30 to reclassify marijuana as a drug acceptable for medical uses.)
Issaquah council members imposed a moratorium on collective gardens in June and then, a month later, upheld the moratorium and directed planners to determine rules for medical marijuana operations in the city.
Patients advocate for city ordinance
The discussion before the July decision to uphold the moratorium centered on poignant accounts from patients, but as the legislation reached the council Dec. 5, emotion yielded to analysis, and the questions focused on technical questions about how to implement the ordinance.
“The proof in the pudding is that this bill has received almost no negative feedback,” Councilman Tola Marts said. “We’ve only had a couple of negative responses from the community, compared to large numbers of responses from patients and other community members that support making medical marijuana available to Issaquah residents.”
In public testimony before the decisions, the council heard from a lone opponent to the collective garden ordinance.
“We should take the status quo and leave it like it is right now,” Issaquah resident Paula DeLucia said.
The other speakers — medical marijuana patients, GreenLink directors and advocates for state-level marijuana reform — at the meeting urged council members to adopt the ordinance.
“Local communities know what works in their communities,” Philip Dawdy, Washington Cannabis Association and Washington Alternative Medicine Alliance leader, told council members. “The federal government in Washington, D.C., doesn’t and, quite often, people in Olympia don’t either, because they’re from other parts of the state. They don’t know what’s going to work in Issaquah. You do.”
In the months since the Legislature acted, cities throughout Washington started a long, emotional process to regulate — and, in some cases, prohibit — collective gardens and other medical marijuana operations. Issaquah is among a handful of cities to adopt comprehensive rules for collective gardens.
“We are sort of going where very few have gone before,” Councilman Fred Butler said before the decision.
Lydia George, GreenLink founder and director, said the decision to set rules for collective gardens “is not a political issue, it’s an issue of health and wellness” — a sentiment echoed by patients.
“I would like to have a safe place to go to get my medicine,” Sammamish resident Kathy Osincup told council members. “I don’t want to be in a back alley. I don’t want to go somewhere where I don’t know the neighborhood or the people. This is the only place I can go that I can feel safe without having to leave my community.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.