Seaside medical marijuana dispensaries in legal limbo

For Dawn Greenfield and her son, Ian Gonzales, it seemed innocuous enough.

They wanted to open a business.

On Oct. 23, they submitted an application to City Hall for a business license at 821 Broadway in downtown Seaside.

Gonzales was listed as the owner of Nature’s Spirit, which the business license application described as a “retail storefront with natural clothing and accessories with a medical marijuana collective also located in the back of the store.”

The city of Seaside denied the application for a fairly straightforward reason: Distributing marijuana breaks federal law.

A Seaside city ordinance , No. 110.04, allows the city to prohibit businesses that violate city, state or federal law from operating in Seaside.

Business licenses can be issued to people who aren’t breaking the law, said Seaside City Manager Mark Winstanley.

“Medical marijuana distribution is still a violation of federal law, and we’re not issuing it based on that fact.”

As of now, the city ordinance means that Greenfield’s and Gonzales’ business can’t open, even though there are already two medical marijuana dispensaries operating within its city limits.

“We’re not at this point making any kind of judgment,” Winstanley said. “We know times are changing and laws are changing, but as of right now, the only way we could issue it is to fly in the face of what our own ordinance says.”

The city’s denial of Nature’s Spirit’s business license reveals the precarious nature of operating a medical marijuana dispensary in Oregon, which has allowed the medical use of marijuana since 1998.

Recently, Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana for all users, and many believe that a legalization ballot measure next November may pass in Oregon.

In cities like Seaside, where local ordinances ostensibly bar the practice, distributing medical marijuana is especially precarious.

Although the state has permitted medical marijuana use through the state-registered Oregon Medical Marijuana Program for the past 15 years, the program will undergo drastic changes in March, when House Bill 3460, which will establish procedures to license and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, takes effect.

House Bill 3460 will require that, among other things, medical marijuana providers are located in an area zoned for commercial, industrial or mixed use but is not a marijuana grow site; that dispensaries must be registered as businesses; that dispensaries must not be located within 1,000 feet of an elementary, secondary or career school attended primarily by minors; that dispensaries must register annually with the state and pay $4,000; and that any dispensary must not be located within 1,000 feet of another medical marijuana facility.

Seaside’s medical marijuana dispensaries include: Puffin Tuff, 1525 S. Roosevelt Drive, whose Facebook page advertises the facility as a “cannabis resource center,” and the Seaside Green Cross, 1803 S. Roosevelt Drive, a nonprofit medical marijuana collective that operates out of Highway 420, where it rents space.

The city became aware of Seaside Green Cross in late October, when an unrelated 911 call reporting damage to a car in an adjacent parking lot brought police officers to Highway 420.

Once they entered the store, whose business license describes its focus as ”gift/novelty/kites,” officers began asking questions about the arrangement with the collective, according to Highway 420 owner Steve Geiger.

“They asked what we were doing, and I talked to them about it at that point,” Geiger said.

Geiger wouldn’t say when he began leasing his space out to Seaside Green Cross, where he is a member, but he did say it was after Gov. John Kitzhaber signed House Bill 3460 into law on Aug. 14, and that the collective has adhered to the forthcoming law’s guidelines since the group’s inception.

Seaside Green Cross has been careful to hew to the new rules, even before their enactment, and Geiger stressed that he and the collective want to operate in good faith.

“I’m only going to let them sublet until the city has a problem with it,” Geiger said. “We understand the city’s positions.”

Puffin Tuff had its business license approved on June 23, 2011, though there was no mention of marijuana – medical or otherwise – on its approved application.

A month earlier, Puffin Tuff’s owners, Jonathan Preuss and Jesse Holmes, had applied for a business license and been rebuffed by the city, according to Seaside Police Chief Bob Gross.

“They originally applied for an application in May of 2011, and it was denied because they said they were going to dispense marijuana,” Gross said.

A month later, Preuss and Holmes submitted another application for a business license, this time describing their business only as a “patient resource center.”

To Preuss, Puffin Tuff’s motives were transparent.

“Yeah, it was fairly clear,” Preuss said. “Our name is cannabis resource center,” he said, though no reference to cannabis is made on the business’s approved license.

Though it may seem dubious to go from an explicitly stated medical marijuana dispensary to a “patient resource center” in one month, the city must take businesses at their word, Gross said.

“When you’re talking about a business license, unless I can prove otherwise, I have to take what they say they’re doing,” Gross said. “If I can prove they’re selling marijuana in violation of federal law, I can recommend revocation or preventing the renewal of their business license. … I can make a recommendation to the city manager that, on a minimum, that they not allow them to renew their business license for the next year.”

Though the city has yet to take action, there have been discussions about Seaside’s medical marijuana dispensary situation.

When Gross was asked to comment on those discussions, he said, “I can’t because I am currently putting together a recommendation for the city manager.”

Though House Bill 3460 was meant to help clarify the legal standing of medical marijuana dispensaries, many are still unsure how its enactment will work with city ordinances like Seaside’s.

The consensus seems to be that, in the battle of city ordinance versus state law, the judiciary will declare the winner.

“I think the most likely way for these competing understandings to be resolved is if a city revokes a business license and the business challenges the revocation,” said Oregon Assistant Attorney General Michael Kron, in an email. “There is no state agency that would be authorized to resolve that dispute; it would be a matter for the courts.”

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis – who has been appointed as one of the two district attorneys to collaborate with law enforcement on House Bill 3460’s enactment and enforcement  – is definitely keeping an eye on the dispensary situation in the county.

“I just was involved in a series of exchanges of emails (with local law enforcement officials) who want to sit down and talk about ones that are operating now outside of the law,” Marquis said. “We haven’t done anything so far, but that’s not because we think it’s OK. … The individual law enforcement agencies, including Seaside and the sheriff’s office, will be getting together over the next few weeks to come up with a uniform policy.”

Marquis said that his office has yet to actively address the dispensary issue because it’s important to have a uniform response across Clatsop County.

“Why hasn’t anybody done anything? You might even point the finger at me – I’m the district attorney,” Marquis said. “We want to be consistent on this. I think it would be a real mess if anyone was coming out with a different ruling.”

Marquis doesn’t think marijuana should be heavily criminalized, but he does think that House Bill 3460 misses the mark.

“Although I’m very leery about marijuana being so widely available, I don’t think it’s the demon drug,” he said. “If you asked me to choose, weed or booze, that’s an easy call for me: The answer would be weed.”

Marquis believes that House Bill 3460, which state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scapoose) voted against and Rep. Debbie Boone (D-Cannon Beach) voted in favor of, was not something Oregon’s constituents desired.

“It’s an end run around the decision of the voters that said ‘no, we’re not ready for that,’” Marquis said, referring to voters’ refusal to back previous ballot measures that would have decriminalized and legalized marijuana. “My question is, what’s broken? Why on earth do we have to make more of this drug available to more and more people?”

For medical marijuana dispensary owners and operators like Steve Geiger, it’s important to work with the community to ensure that the right people are getting the help and medication they need.

“Most of our patients who come in to use this collective are older people in the community, and they’re sick — they’re really sick,” Geiger said. “And they come in here and they cry because they have access to good medicine.”

For Geiger, the kerfuffle over legality distracts from what he feels has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

“The community as a whole is happy we’re here,” Geiger said of the Seaside Green Cross marijuana cooperative. “We plan to be here long-term. We’re trying to do what we need to be compliant. We don’t want to be a rogue institution. We want to work with the city, the police department and the community.”

But, under House Bill 3460, is prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries from operating in Seaside legal?

Like most questions related to the dispensary debate, there’s no easy answer.

“Personally, I do believe a city could say, ‘You can have dispensaries, but we don’t want them in our community,’” Marquis said. “And that’s going to be a debate. That’s going to be a big debate in Salem.”

The Seaside Signal, 12.28.13. Link: http://goo.gl/PCNziY

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