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Patients challenge Seattle marijuana rules

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By Gene Johnson
Associated Press
SEATTLE -- A group of patients sued to block new medical marijuana regulations in Seattle on Wednesday, saying cities in Washington have no authority to impose such rules.
The lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court sets up a legal fight over whether cities can take steps to regulate marijuana providers, following Gov. Chris Gregoire's veto of a bill that would have set up a system of state-licensed dispensaries.
Seattle is one of seven cities in Washington that have passed rules governing collective gardens since the veto. Others have imposed moratoriums forbidding the gardens from operating or providing marijuana to patients.
Seattle's City Council last summer approved rules requiring medical marijuana businesses to follow the same rules as any other businesses -- obtain a license, pay taxes, follow land use and historical preservation codes, and follow safe food-handling guidelines. Mayor Mike McGinn signed the bill.
Douglas Hiatt, the Seattle medical marijuana lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said Wednesday that the state has not granted local governments in Washington the authority to impose rules governing medical marijuana, and that furthermore, requiring dispensaries to obtain a business license forces them to incriminate themselves. Washington's medical marijuana law, passed by voters in 1998, didn't make marijuana legal -- it just allows patients to present a defense if they're charged with possession in state court.
"I told the City Council that if they passed this I would sue them, because they don't have the power to do this," Hiatt said. "I'm keeping my promise."
The Seattle city attorney's office would defend the law but has no further comment, spokeswoman Kimberly Mills said.
Kurt Boehl, a criminal defense attorney who worked closely with the city attorney's office to draft Seattle's ordinance, said he was disappointed.
"I don't see how suing the city helps patients," Boehl said. "We found a city that was willing to work with patients, to work with the medical marijuana community, and this is a slap in the face."
He argued that cities have inherent authority to regulate businesses that are open to the public in their jurisdiction. The business licensing requirement does not actually force dispensaries to incriminate themselves -- at least not under state law, which allows for patient-to-patient transfers of marijuana, he said. He conceded that it requires the business owners to incriminate themselves under federal law, but he said he doubted if anyone had ever been investigated or prosecuted on that basis.
Issaquah, Mukilteo, Shoreline, Ellensburg, Gig Harbor and Castle Rock also have regulations governing collective gardens, according to Philip Dawdy, of the Washington Alternative Medicine Alliance. Several other cities, including Tacoma, are considering them.
"I have to ask why a longtime advocate for safe access to cannabis turns around and sues the principal city that has been able to provide safe access," Dawdy said of Hiatt. "What the city did was brave and heroic, and I don't know who's being hurt by these regulations."
Hiatt insisted there are problems with the regulations and with the state's medical marijuana law that need to be sorted out by the courts.
"Putting your head in the stand and pretending the problem doesn't exist doesn't make it go away," he said. "What I am trying to do is establish what the law is, what it can be and what people's rights are."
Story tags » Social IssuesLawsSeattle

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