Medical marijuana shops pop up in Port Angeles while recreational industry struggles to start
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Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News
Top Shelf medical marijuana dispensary owner JD Janssen, right, inspects a strain of his shop’s marijuana with employee Caleb Heinig.

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES –– As recreational marijuana outlets struggle through the state licensing process and an unstable supply of newly legal pot, the city has seen a boom of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Three have opened on First Street this year alone, bringing the total to five.

“There's a lot of people that need a supply that recreational will never be able to meet,” said JD Janssen, who opened Top Shelf in the former Weisfield Jeweler building at 121 W. First St. in April.

Janssen used to supply other dispensaries on the North Olympic Peninsula and elsewhere but opened up his shop because of times there wasn't a need for his product.

“Our problem was we just had too much,” Jannsen said.

Such an excess is in contrast to the limited supply of the few recreational marijuana outlets that have opened in the state since the November 2012 passage of Initiative 502.

“Our patients need to have access to medicine at a low price and at high quality,” Janssen said.

Wendy Buck-Benge is owner of Sparket, a medical marijuana dispensary that opened in February at 1403 E. First St. and one of two businesses to receive licenses to run recreational outlets in Port Angeles.

“There's definitely a place and a need for the two markets,” she said.

“People who use marijuana medically need to be sure they have access to a steady supply.”

Between them, the owners of the city's five dispensaries say they serve close to 4,000 patients.

Nathan West, city community development director, said the dispensaries operate under “retail certificates of occupancy.”

“The city of Port Angeles does not discriminate against what types of businesses receive those certificates,” West said.

Because of that, many of the city's medical patients come from neighboring communities like Sequim, said Anthony Owen, owner of the Karma Wellness Cooperative at 2839 E. U.S. Highway 101 outside city limits.

Sequim has a moratorium on all marijuana business.

In Jefferson County, there are medical marijuana dispensaries in Brinnon, Port Hadlock and Port Townsend.

While some have criticized the medical marijuana market as a back-door way for people to buy pot, the dispensary owners say most of their customers use the product medicinally.

“I'm sure we have a few people who just got their cards for recreational use,” Anthony Owen of Karma Wellness Cooperative said.

“But we have by far more sick people that come in here.”

“I used to think medical marijuana was all just an excuse to get high,” said Rob Johnson, budtender at Olympian Canna Care at 303 Tumwater Truck Road, the oldest dispensary on the North Olympic Peninsula.

“Then I broke my back, and this was the only thing that got me off of pills.”

Nevertheless, the medical marijuana market has never been regulated in Washington.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire directed state employees not to take moves to regulate medical marijuana, made legal in Washington by the 1998 Initiative 692.

That, said Janssen, created the system that leaves confusion among visitors to Port Angeles, who walk into his shop with money and an expectation they will leave with marijuana, only to leave confused that his product can't be purchased without a prescription.

“I think we're going to be used as a model as more states legalize cannabis about how not to do things,” he said.

He pointed to Colorado's legalization efforts, where medical growers and retailers who were already regulated were allowed to open up their shops to users who did not have prescriptions.

“If they had actually talked to us, used the people of the medical community, there would have been no learning curve,” Owen said.

The two systems result in a disparity in pricing, and medical operators say, quality.

One-eighth of an ounce package of recreational marijuana is subject to 25 percent excise taxes as it is sold from grower to retailer to customer at Sea Change Cannabis for prices of $45 to $55.

That same amount at medical outlets sells for $35 to $40.

“It's far too expensive for a patient who needs their medicine,” Owen said. “And they run out every day.”

Failed legislation last year proposed to merge recreational and medical marijuana systems, with patients receiving vouchers to waive the excise taxes, but these dispensary owners said that system has several other holes.

“In the recreational store, you're not allowed to say anything about the qualities of this strand over the other,” said Nicholas Benge, husband of Wendy Buck-Benge and co-owner of Sparket.

“You can only say this will get you high, or this will get you higher.

“In a medical shop, we can tell people what we've seen the different strains do. Because we've seen the difference it makes in our patients.”

Owen noted his store has paid the state $90,000 to $100,000 in sales taxes over the last two years.

“We would love to be an active part of the community if they would allow us to,” Owen said.

Owen noted many of the growers who supply his shop, however, do not file or pay state and federal taxes because they're afraid local, state or federal government could declare their businesses illegal on a whim and prosecute those with records.

“What we need is a reset button and to let those with the knowledge, those that have been doing it, bring that to the new industry,” Owen said.

Richard Pharr, owner of Olympian Care, foresees a crackdown coming for medical marijuana shops.

“There's too much chaos to work it out legitimately,” Pharr said.

“The only option I see the liquor board having is to take it over and mess it up like they messed up liquor stores for 70 years.”

Janssen was more hopeful federal lawmakers will remove the narcotics classification that makes marijuana illegal like harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.

“I truly think the feds will de-schedule cannabis before the state can come up with a solution,” he said.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: August 24. 2014 7:08PM
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