Written by Tom Callis, posted in Peninsula Daily News
PORT ANGELES — City Hall staff members have given the green light to a proposed medical marijuana dispensary that the owner said would service the entire North Olympic Peninsula.
City of Port Angeles staff members say the dispensary — which would be a central location for people who have been authorized by a doctor to use marijuana to ease their pain to access the drug — will be permitted because it doesn’t violate the city’s municipal code and appears to comply with state law.
“All we’re saying is . . . it meets regulations,” said City Manager Kent Myers.
“It’s not to say that we’ve endorsed it.”
Its proponent, Richard Pharr of Port Angeles, said he will apply for a building occupancy permit Monday and hopes to open the Olympian Canna dispensary within the next month.
He said he will not publicly announce the location because of concerns for security. Clients will have to make appointments by phone.
City Planning Manager Sue Roberds said it will have to be placed in a commercial or industrial zone.
Pharr, 31, approached the city about opening the dispensary about three weeks ago.
City staff members, including planners, the police chief and city attorney, met twice before concluding about a week ago that it would be allowed to open, Myers said.
Pharr, who said he has used marijuana for the last four years to relieve chronic pain caused by a construction site accident, said the dispensary will be a legitimate operation and provide marijuana only for people authorized by their doctor to use it.
He said each authorization written for a client will be checked with the client’s doctor.
“That is the first major rule,” Pharr said.
The Port Angeles Police Department will not intervene as long the dispensary provides marijuana only to those who have been authorized to use it by a doctor, said Chief Terry Gallagher.
He said police will not assume the dispensary is breaking the law but added, “If we have to act, we will act.”
The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes was authorized by the state’s Medical Marijuana Act, passed by voters in 1998.
The act allows the patient to grow the plants themselves or authorize someone to provide it for them.
Pharr spoke passionately about the benefits of marijuana for people who suffer from chronic pain, such as himself, and said he is opening the dispensary for humanitarian reasons.
He said not all those authorized by doctors to use marijuana medically are able to grow the plants themselves or find a provider they can trust.
Pharr said the dispensary, which would serve both Clallam and Jefferson counties, is intended to eliminate that problem.
“The ones I want to help are the ones that can’t help themselves,” he said.
He said he doesn’t know of any similar operations on the Peninsula.
Pharr said a doctor authorized him to use marijuana after a sheet of plywood fell on him at a construction site.
He received spinal injuries and said marijuana dulls his pain enough to allow him to get out of bed in the morning.
No plants will be grown at the dispensary, Pharr said, but it will be heavily secured.
He said he couldn’t prevent a client from selling the marijuana to others but he intends to work with police to help catch any violators.
Pharr said people who use marijuana for medicinal purposes aren’t rare on the Peninsula, and he expects to be overwhelmed by the demand.
He said dispensaries operators in the Puget Sound area have told him that half of their business comes from Peninsula residents.
“We have the greatest need for dispensaries out of any county in the state of Washington,” Pharr said.
He said he didn’t have an explanation as to why.
Pharr said he will be licensed with the state Department of Health as a “health aid agency.”
The dispensary will charge for compensation for services.
State law prohibits the drug from being sold even for medical purposes.
Appointments will be made after a client’s medical records have been reviewed, Pharr said.
The state’s Medical Marijuana Act says nothing about dispensaries.
In fact, it says that a grower can provide marijuana only for one person at a time — assuming that the recipient has been authorized to use the drug by a doctor in order to alleviate pain.
But for the operators of dispensaries around the state, including a man who intends to open one in Port Angeles, the act also
provides plenty of loopholes.
For instance, the act, approved by voters in 1998, allows authorized recipients of marijuana to designate a provider if they can’t grow the plants themselves.
It doesn’t say how long that arrangement must last.
Dispensary operators are able to serve multiple people by beginning a contract when a client walks in and ending it after the transaction has been made.
That may only last 20 minutes, said Steve Sarich, a North Bend resident who heads a medical marijuana advocacy group, Access 4 Washington, and a dispensary in Seattle.
Dispensaries also get around the prohibition of selling marijuana for medicinal purposes by accepting donations or characterizing payments as compensation for time and expenses, he said.
“They are all legal loopholes just like any other company works through,” said Michael Pharr, who plans to open the Olympian Canna dispensary in Port Angeles within the next month.
Sarich said he didn’t know how many dispensaries operate in the state. An online directory listed four in Seattle.
Pharr said his dispensary will not be hindered by the 15-plant limit for medicinal marijuana providers.
The dispensary will operate as a “collective,” he said, with plants grown by people like him who are authorized by doctors to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
That way, Pharr said, they can’t be prosecuted for growing the plants in the first place.
“They [medicinal marijuana users] can all do this,” he said, “and nobody understands that.”
Pharr also said that each client will designate one grower, instead of the dispensary, as that person’s provider during a visit.
That keeps the operation from being accused of supplying more than one person at a time.
While there have been dispensaries raided by authorities, including one that was shut down last year in Spokane for allegedly violating the state’s one-patient-per-provider rule, Port Angeles Police Chief Terry Gallagher said he doesn’t think that Pharr’s business plan will be a problem for the department.
“As far as I understand the law, that would not be an issue,” he said. “However, I would also say this is a new area for us, and so I would expect that we would sort of learn as we go.”
Gallagher said he is not interested in arresting people who are using marijuana for medicinal purposes.
But he emphasized that the state’s medical marijuana act doesn’t apply to federal law enforcement agencies.
He said the Drug Enforcement Agency can still choose to crack down on dispensaries.
If it did so in Port Angeles, the police department would assist the agency if needed, said Deputy Chief Brian Smith.
Two spokespeople with the state Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the legality of the dispensaries, saying it would require a legal analysis that they are not allowed to provide.