Medical Marijuana Zoning

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“They’re popping up like Starbucks!”

That was the take from a patient in the waiting area of one of the dozen medical marijuana shops I surveyed the Monday of Labor Day weekend. (And, no, “surveyed” does not mean “patronized.”)

Councilmember Nick Licata and I have been working with staff from the city’s Department of Planning and Development and with a group of medical marijuana advocates and shop operators to devise a set of City rules for this burgeoning business area dwelling in on odd legal twilight between federal law (“illegal under any circumstance – no, really, we’re serious”) and Washington voters (back in 1998 we said we believed patients should have access to marijuana).

As anyone who walks, rides or drives the city can tell you, medical marijuana seems to be booming business. In my unscientific drive of Rainier Valley I found 11 or 12 shops between Rainier Beach and South Dearborn Street. Watch for the green crosses and the big MMJ letters.

On the Sunday I checked them out and walked into a couple, plenty were open and I observed a mix of people inside and out. You walk into a small waiting area and talk initially with a staff person behind an enclosed counter about your order. No huge crowds. Some people who, frankly, looked unwell. Other people, well, maybe they were picking up for a sick relative.

Cities including Seattle have been hoping to get guidance from the state about what’s legal and what’s not when it comes to the production, processing and provision of medical marijuana. Unfortunately, the clarity train has derailed each of the past two sessions. We know collective gardens are the preferred form for access, but that’s about all we know. In the meantime several cities in the state have instituted moratoriums prohibiting the establishment of medical marijuana collectives.

In Seattle we have not instituted a moratorium, electing instead to regulate. The idea is to issue a business license for a collective (or dispensary or access point or shop or whatever we’re calling it now), like we have now for more than 150 collectives, and hold the business to community standards like any other business.

To that end we have a draft set of zoning regulations:

that addresses the potential off-site impacts of larger-scale cannabis-related activity.  The bill would accomplish this by limiting the level of activity allowed in single-family and multifamily residential zones,  small-scale business areas, and  areas with historic character (such as the Pike Place Market or Chinatown/International District) to what the State allows in a single collective garden.  In these areas, the amount of cannabis that could be grown, sold, or processed would be strictly limited, whether this activity is part of a business or is located in a dwelling unit   The rules would also clarify the maximum size of any indoor  cannabis growing or processing  operation that wants to set up in industrial zoning. Otherwise, a shop could try setting up.

I say “try” because there are some other considerations, like, to repeat, this is an illegal activity in the eyes of federal law enforcement, with special attention paid if a shop sets up within 1,000 feet of a school and if the shop simply has too much supply on hand. And let’s be honest, there’s no way there’s enough legitimate medical access business to support 11 or 12 shops in Rainier Valley in addition to all the other shops setting up in the city.

 Councilmember Licata and I will be visiting a number of community council and District Council meetings this fall to talk about the proposed rules. I hope to see you at a meeting.