Washington: Medical Marijuana Advocates Take Bellingham To Court Again
By Steve Elliott
A new lawsuit has been filed against the City of Bellingham, Washington by the Seattle-based medical marijuana advocacy group Cannabis Action Coalition, setting the stage for another battle over the legality of medicinal cannabis dispensaries.
The lawsuit, filed on July 15, challenges the Bellingham City council's unanimous July 1 vote to impose interim zoning restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries by means of an "emergency" ordinance, reports John Stark at The Bellingham Herald.
One of those signing the lawsuit, filed in Whatcom County Superior Court, is Martin Nickerson, operator of the Northern Cross Collective downtown. Nickerson and two of his employees were arrested in March 2012, and are facing a November 12, 2013 criminal trial on several felony counts for alleged possession and sale of marijuana.
Nickerson and his lawyers have filed two previous lawsuits challenging the city's actions.
Five days after police raided Northern Cross in 2012, attorneys representing Northern Cross sought an injunction to block the city taking further action. Nickerson and his employees had gone to great lengths to keep the collective's activities within state law, according to the attorneys.
But Assistant City Attorney Shane Brady argued that no provision in Washington law made it legal for Northern Cross to take money in exchange for cannabis. "The court cannot enjoin the Bellingham Police Department from enforcing the law," Brady wrote.
Then-Judge Steven Mura agreed, rejecting the request for a court order blocking the city's actions.
In October 2012, lawyers for Northern Cross were back in Superior Court, again trying to get a court order protecting the collective's legal right to operate. They argued that Bellingham was trying to enforce "unwritten regulations" against Northern Cross by revoking its business license.
"Bellingham still has not passed any ordinances or enacted any regulations addressing collective (marijuana) gardens or medical cannabis access points," the October lawsuit states. "Many other cities in Washington have regulated medical cannabis collective gardens. ... Other cities have passed temporary moratoria so that they can craft regulations for collective gardens."
Again, City Attorney Brady responded that the collective's operations were illegal, and it was not getting a business license. "Plaintiff's business is unlawful under federal law, state law and local law," Brady claimed in document submitted to the court in November 2012.
That case is still undecided, and on July 1, the Bellingham City Council took the first steps toward developing a regulatory framework for legal marijuana outlets.
But in the new July 15 lawsuit -- their third -- Nickerson and co-plaintiffs ask the court to nullify the council's recent action and issue an order blocking Bellingham from enforcing the new interim zoning regulations in dispensaries. The lawsuit charges that the restrictions effectively prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries, contrary to the intent of state law.
City Attorney Peter Ruffato said the interim zoning for dispensaries is not a blanket prohibition. Instead, it restricts establishment of "collective gardens" for medical marijuana patients to industrial zones, and also allows patients to cultivate cannabis in their own homes.
Ruffato said that both medical and recreational marijuana outlets remain in a legal gray area as long as the sale of cannabis remains a federal crime, even though Washington voters have chosen to legalize it for both medicinal and recreational use. He claimed there is no state provision for the legal sale of medical marijuana.
(Graphic: Northern Cross)