The largest federal crackdown in the 13-year history of the state medical-marijuana law has sent Spokane's once-open medical-marijuana businesses diving deep underground. Most of the 50-some dispensaries abruptly closed. Those that remain are mostly word-of-mouth secrets.
SPOKANE — From the outside, the century-old Victorian home near Gonzaga University looks quaint, with lilies and pansies blooming in the front yard and lace curtains in the windows.
No clue is given that it’s actually a medical-marijuana bakery and dispensary. That’s just fine with Kandi, a pastry chef who runs the dispensary with her mother.
She flinches when she pulls back the lace curtains and sees a black SUV out front. “I think, ‘This is it. They’re coming for us,’ ” she said.
She asked that her last name not be used, and there’s good cause for fear. The largest federal crackdown in the 13-year history of the state medical-marijuana law has sent Spokane’s once-open medical-marijuana businesses diving deep underground. Most of the 50-some dispensaries abruptly closed. Those that remain are mostly word-of-mouth secrets.
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Contrast that to Seattle, where the city’s embrace of medical marijuana encourages a flourishing business for storefront dispensaries, bakers, growers and lawyers. An unofficial count, based on Seattle business licenses and advertising websites, finds at least 75 storefront dispensaries open, and more appearing weekly.
Federal raids and indictments in Spokane, combined with a law muddled by Gov. Chris Gregoire’s veto of a key bill earlier this year, leave a medical-marijuana law with two entirely different applications on either side of the Cascade curtain.
The different approach by federal and state law enforcement may reflect divergent political priorities or workload, east and west.
On both sides, the use of medical marijuana for suffering patients remains wildly popular; a December poll, commissioned by the ACLU of Washington, found four out of five voters in Eastern and Western Washington alike support it.
In Spokane, patients’ access to cannabis has reverted to a time before storefront dispensaries outnumbered Starbucks five-to-one, as they briefly did. For some pundits, the crackdown was a justified curb on an industry that had grown too bold.
But it also complicates the lives of patients like Paul, a 53-year-old financial analyst in Spokane, who said he uses cannabis to control his weight loss from HIV. Dispensaries in Seattle report a growing number of patients like him, who are too scared to get medical marijuana in the 509 area code.
“It takes me a day to drive to Seattle and back, but if that’s what I have to do, I do it. It’s too hot over here,” he said.
Feds vs. medical pot
Lawmakers last session passed a landmark bill to license and regulate the medical-marijuana dispensaries that had sprung up around the state since 2009. Gregoire vetoed most of the bill in May, effectively killing the legal basis under which dispensaries operated.
But a creative interpretation of remaining provisions of the bill — which authorize new, 45-plant “collective gardens” — allowed the dispensaries to change their business model and remain open through the spring.
By then, Spokane’s marijuana activists were already on edge.
A dispensary owner was convicted of drug trafficking in March in Spokane County Superior Court, the first conviction of its kind in the state.
Spokane police visited dispensaries, warning them they were illegal, but owners rebuffed the police, said Sgt. Tom Hendren, who handles drug investigations. “There was no fear of local law enforcement,” he said. “Most were willing to chance it.”
Then, in early April, Spokane’s U.S. attorney, Mike Ormsby, sent dozens of threat letters to about 55 local dispensary owners and their landlords, warning that the properties could be seized if the storefronts weren’t closed within 30 days.
Most quickly closed, including one in downtown Spokane run by Troy Brower, a 42-year-old with a mane of blond dreadlocks. His landlord issued an eviction. “I got out the shredder” and destroyed patient records, he said.
Before the 30 days passed, federal and state police raided the few that remained open, seizing plants, cash and thousands of patient records; a second round of raids soon followed.
In July, five dispensary operators were indicted and potentially face mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years.
Ormsby declined to comment for this story because of the pending charges, but in April he said the raids were a response to complaints that nine dispensaries operated near schools. One, run by a man being prosecuted, had a large billboard two blocks from an elementary school.
Ormsby’s counterpart in Seattle, Jenny Durkan, hasn’t launched raids, a decision that may reflect different priorities or office workload.
But in a statement to The Seattle Times last week, Durkan issued her sharpest warning to date.
She reiterated that her office won’t prosecute legitimate patients, their authorized caregivers or their doctors.
“Many others are operating well outside that zone,” she said. “The label ‘medical marijuana’ cannot be used as a shield to hide drug dealing and other criminal behavior. No one should take false comfort from lax local laws or marijuana-industry lawyers.”
Since 2009, the Obama Justice Department has conducted at least 106 raids and prosecuted at least 43 people involved in medical marijuana, according to Americans for Safe Access, a national advocacy group.
Those numbers are roughly equivalent to those during the George W. Bush administration but are spread among more states, including Montana, Nevada, Michigan and Colorado, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the group.
“Obama is maintaining the course [of the Bush administration], doing everything and maybe more in attacking medical marijuana by attacking distributors,” he said.
Just as Ormsby’s letter dropped in April, a new edition of Spokane’s phone book appeared with 34 entries in the brand-new “medical-marijuana” section. The display ads now read like a list of the indicted.
Many dispensaries had business licenses from the city of Spokane — listing such business purposes as “ambulatory health care services” — and paid taxes, believing that it provided some protection.
Prosecution “test cases”
Douglas Phelps, an attorney for Jerry Laberdee, one of the indicted dispensary owners, said he plans to raise that argument. The prosecutions, he said, are “test cases.”
“I think they’re doing it to see what juries will convict on,” Phelps said.
Spokane has since stopped issuing business licenses to dispensaries, and the City Council hasn’t duplicated Seattle’s laissez-faire approach of treating dispensaries like other businesses and de-emphasizing marijuana as a law-enforcement priority. Steve Corker, a Spokane city councilman, said he is sympathetic to decriminalization arguments, but upcoming elections for the council and mayor put the issue “on the back burner.”
“We’re basically hoping there will be some better understanding between the federal and state authorities on this issue,” he said.
Lawmakers plan to reintroduce a medical-marijuana-regulation bill.
But attention will likely shift toward Initiative 502, a full-legalization initiative likely to be introduced in Olympia in January. If the Legislature declines to pass it, it goes on the November 2012 ballot, setting up a statewide debate about marijuana.
Weylin Colebank closed his storefront dispensary in North Spokane after federal agents last spring seized marijuana, cash and his client accounts, kept on QuickBooks accounting software.
He soon reopened in a dilapidated house off the North Division strip, but without a sign or advertising and with bars on the windows.
“This all hurt the patients more than anything,” said Colebank, 60. “When the records were seized, they didn’t know if they were going to jail or not.”
Colebank said he’s not afraid. “I’m no drug dealer.”
A maverick streak runs wide through the Eastern Washington marijuana entrepreneurs. One dispensary operated out of a trailer, parked across the street from a Pizza Hut. After the raids, protests featured one activist — later indicted — holding a pot plant and packing a handgun outside the federal courthouse.
Mike Fitzsimmons, an influential conservative talk-show host on KXLY 920-AM, said the activists “pushed the envelope” and should have known a crackdown was coming.
“The people engaged in this ought to have been smart enough to know that possession and production in the quantities they’re talking about aren’t contemplated by the law, and certainly not the federal law,” said Fitzsimmons, a proponent of legalization.
Colebank said he had 800 clients before the raids and paid about $2,000 a month in city and state taxes. His business, Essence of Mother Earth, is now quietly, slowly rebuilding.
“There’s money there, and the city needs it, but they’re afraid of the feds,” he said. “I’m trying to run this as a legitimate business.”
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or email@example.com