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Who Got Medical Licenses in Seattle? You Might Be Surprised

February 25, 2016

Cannabis is famously legal in Washington, but the state has allowed a confusing two-track system for the past two years. Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board issued licenses for adult-use recreational stores in 2014, but hundreds of unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries continued to operate across the state until recently.

In Seattle alone, more than 200 unlicensed MMJ dispensaries existed alongside the city’s 21 licensed recreational stores. The rec shops were open to anyone 21 or older. Entering an MMJ dispensary required a medical marijuana card. The dispensaries continued to thrive because of a loyal customer base, a wider range of products, lower prices, and budtenders who were free to discuss medical issues with patients. (In Washington, it’s illegal for budtenders in licensed retail shops to discuss medical use of their products.)

That bifurcated system is scheduled to end on July 1, when unlicensed dispensaries become illegal across the state. At that point cannabis can be sold legally only in state-licensed stores. Some of those stores will receive medical endorsements that allow them to serve state-registered medical patients with higher purchase limits, stronger potency, and untaxed medicine.

In Seattle, the shift led to a sense of impending doom in the medical marijuana community. Under the coming change, most medical-only dispensaries will disappear.

No More Little Amsterdams: Seattle Zones Out Dispensary Districts

Last week it became clear just how few will survive into the licensed era. In a city that once supported more than 200 MMJ outlets, there will soon be only 28. And many of those will be run by, or hosted within, existing recreational stores.

This map shows the cannabis stores that received medical endorsements within the city limits.

Some things won’t change. Many medical dispensaries will remain clumped in green-cross districts such as Lake City Way, Aurora Avenue North, and SoDo. A few that were formerly pure medical shops, like Fweedom Cannabis, Trees Collective, and The Source, may either go on as fully licensed and medically endorsed operations or open up to patients and consumers alike. Some of Seattle’s best-known dual outlets (which operate medical and recreational shops at separate locations) will continue to serve patients. The local Have A Heart chain won licenses for two medical shops. Dockside Cannabis, which now operates two recreational stores and one unlicensed medical dispensary, won a medical endorsement for its SoDo recreational store.

Dockside co-owner Maria Moses told Leafly her medical dispensary in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood will remain open until the end of June. “We’re getting more patients than ever” at that location as Seattle’s other dispensaries close down, she said. Come July 1, the company’s medical operation will leave Fremont and move to Dockside’s SoDo location to operate under the new license.

Find it confusing? You’re not alone. Most people in the industry in Washington are struggling to figure it out. “We still don’t know what the rules are and how the system will work,” Moses said. “Whatever they turn out to be, we’re committed to making them work, because we feel strongly that we want to continue to serve patients.”

A surprising number of existing recreational stores won medical endorsements. Uncle Ike’s, Seattle’s most famous rec shop, won a medical endorsement for its flagship store. “We are waiting to see what the final rules look like,” owner Ian Eisenberg told Leafly, which means it may be a while before Uncle Ike’s opens a medical counter.

Washington Expands Number of Retail Licenses

It’s unclear what the future holds even for existing medical dispensaries that won medical licenses. The Source, a now-defunct dispensary in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, appears to have won two medical licenses — but not for its former location on Washington Street. According to Liquor and Cannabis Board records, both The Source and an entity known as Washington OG were granted medical endorsements for a single address in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Both licenses link to The Source’s old phone number, which went unanswered last week. The new address, though, could prove to be brilliantly chosen. It’s directly across the street from Swedish Medical Center Ballard. As medical cannabis finds more acceptance among physicians, such a dispensary could capitalize on the old pharmacy model: Go where the patients are.

Though the city’s unlicensed dispensaries are supposed to be shut down by July 1, it’s unclear how many of the 28 stores with medical endorsements will actually have their medical side up and running by then.

It’s not as simple as setting up an extra product case. Under the new law, stores offering a medical side must have at least one medically certified consultant on staff during business hours. Certification isn’t easy or cheap. It requires 20 hours of initial training followed by ten hours of annual continuing medical education. And as of this writing, four months prior to the deadline, there are no programs set up specifically to meet the state’s certification requirements — which themselves have yet to be finalized.

That’s the risk: a high initial investment in certified medical marijuana consultant training. The reward could be great, though. Patients who supported more than 200 dispensaries will now be filing into 28, or fewer, licensed outlets. The demand and volume could be enormous. We’ll see how it plays out come July 1.

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