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October 30, 2009 -- Pacific Northwest Inlander (WA)

Going Underground

A Seattle Lawyer Tells Local Medical Marijuana Dispensaries to Go on the "Down-Low." Will They Listen?

By Nicholas Deshais

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

"We're almost on time," began Kevin Oliver, just a couple of minutes late. "Which is pretty good for a meeting full of stoners."

Also pretty good for a bunch of stoners: More than 80 of them showed up for a Sunday meeting with little notice to hear a lawyer explain the intricacies and intersections of local, state and federal laws.

But that's what happened.

Oliver, executive director of the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), stood before the crowd, looking a little nervous in a pinstriped blazer stuck with a little golden pin the shape of a marijuana leaf. He explained the reason for the meeting. "This is not a war on drugs," Oliver said to the crowd in the Community Building's lobby in downtown Spokane. "This is a prohibition on hemp and cannabis."

For the crowd, composed mostly of those deeply involved with medical marijuana, the talk was a little off-base, but Oliver heads up a group that advocates for the full legalization of pot for everybody. Not just for sick people.

As Oliver gave his half-hour oratory, a small group sat huddled around a table away from the meeting, discussing their own business.

Douglas Hiatt, a self-described lawyer-activist from Seattle, was speaking intently with Jacey Hoag and Rhonda Duncan, owners of two different medical marijuana dispensaries in town.

As a lawyer who's worked with medical marijuana cases since 1996 -- two years before Washington voters approved its use -- Hiatt had some pretty simple advice: Don't sell drugs and don't draw the attention of law enforcement.

"The advice they've been getting is not very good advice," Hiatt says about the dispensary owners. "I told them to do it in a safe way, and to do it in a nonprofit way so they're not glorified drug dealers."

As for the location of many of the dispensaries -- on busy roads surrounded by retailers -- Hiatt was not impressed.

"In Seattle, [medical marijuana co-ops are] much more on the down-low, even though the police know where they are. Co-ops are in industrial areas, not across from the Starbucks. And they're not open to the public," Hiatt says. "Absolutely I think [Spokane dispensaries acting like regular businesses is] part of the trouble. That's aroused the ire of law enforcers."

The last couple of months have been pretty hectic for the medical marijuana community in Spokane. First, SpoCannabis leader Darren McCrea, who has organized meetings that allowed dozens of medical marijuana patients to get pot, was charged with seven drug-related felonies in late August. Then, in early September, just as a new crop of medical marijuana dispensaries were popping up around town, the city's police force raided Change, Spokane's first dispensary with a business license. Most of the other dispensaries closed their doors in response. Then, last week, the Obama Administration issued a memorandum saying the federal government would no longer arrest or prosecute people who are legally using or selling medical marijuana in the 13 states that allow it.

At Sunday's meeting, the audience contained what can be best described as the leadership of Spokane's troubled medical marijuana community: Hoag, owner of the Wellness Medicine Collective and the leader of an association of medical marijuana dispensaries; Duncan and Robert Brocklehurst from Club Compassion; Chantel Jackson of the Human Connection; Scott Shupe and Christopher Stevens from Change; Spocannabis' McCrea; and David Van Scyoc, a man whose body is so riddled with ailments ( full body scarring from a garage fire when he was two, plus brain cancer ) that he has become something of an icon in the movement.

Hiatt's advice to the larger group was almost the exact opposite of what he gave Hoag and Duncan: scream from the rooftops.

"Nobody is more powerful than you are when you open your mouth. Talk to your neighbor, to the pastor at your church," he bellowed. As the crowd grew boisterous, Hiatt's voice boomed over them, occasionally shutting down an out-of-turn speaker. "You can raise a lot of hell with an attitude and a fax machine. ... Get in the face of elected officials. In a good way."

With one-liners that kept the crowd's attention, Hiatt dispensed advice for those in the audience who had a doctor's authorization to use medical marijuana.

"Don't even use the words 'money' and 'marijuana' in a sentence together," he said. "If 'money' and 'marijuana' are in the same sentence, it's practically a federal sentence."

The day after the event, Hiatt was up in Colville with one of his clients. He says he's coming back to Spokane, considering everything that's happening right now with medical marijuana. "I've made a commitment to go statewide to defend this thing. Absolutely I'm going to come back to Spokane. I'll go wherever they need me," he says.

But Hoag, who closed his doors the day Change got raided but remains open as a members-only "private collective," says it would be better if everybody calmed down.

"This whole thing is really blown out of proportion.... I never wanted to go protest [Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor John] Grasso and protest Change getting shut down... I want to remain a quiet, nonprofit collective," he says. "The problem came when we got so loud."

As for the medical marijuana crowd being mixed up with NORML's full-legalization agenda, Hoag says it's probably not a good idea.

"You put a few people on edge when you throw that in," he says. "That's a talk to have later. We've got enough on our plate now. That's a whole 'nother talk."

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