Sunday, August 23, 2015

Olympia Dispute over Marijuana Operation Raises Questions

Above: Medical Marijuana

By Janine Unsoeld

Questions are being raised in a community issue involving medical marijuana, code and law enforcement, he-said-she-said neighbor disputes, and three utility line fires that involve Puget Sound Energy. Throw in a breakdown in communication and you have a messy situation.

Little Hollywood has learned that the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force did what is called a “knock and talk” at a marijuana operation in an Olympia northeast neighborhood on July 7. 

The unannounced visit to the home was in response to a neighbor complaint by Melinda Spencer, who alleges that her neighbor is operating a commercial marijuana grow operation.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday with narcotics task force captain Dave Johnson and the detective who actually visited the home, both said that the tenants were cooperative and invited law enforcement inside. The tenants showed the proper paperwork for a collective grow. Captain Johnson said that the residents gave the detectives a tour of the entire property and it was found to be in compliance with current medical marijuana law.

Captain Johnson said that in the last three years since the passage of state legislation, they have dealt with a lot of complaints about grow operations.

“The law is going to change next July, and it’s going to get cleaned up a little bit, but until then, it’s a Catch-22 law, and not easy to deal with,” said Johnson.

Collective grows are not required to register with the state or local authorities, so police have no idea how many are in operation, and neighbors and concerned neighbors wonder where to turn to for information and assistance.

Utility Line Fires and Communication Timeline

The information about the narcotic task force’s “knock and talk” was never provided to Melinda Spencer, who complained about her neighbor’s operation at Tuesday night’s Olympia city council meeting in public testimony.

City manager Steve Hall mentioned it during council comments and regretted the lack of communication with Spencer.

Spencer said that she believes that three recent utility line fires, one occurring as recently as July 30 near her home, were caused by the grow operation in her northeast neighborhood. She says that her neighbor in question has repeatedly and openly referred to his operation as a wholesale grow for sale to medical dispensaries.

Spencer began communicating her concerns with the city and other authorities in the third week of June, before the fires.

In a June 29 email, the date of the first utility line fire, Chris Grabowski, lead city code enforcement officer, told Spencer and her husband that their concern had been forwarded to the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force, saying this was not a city zoning or code enforcement issue, but a law enforcement issue.

That same day, a sergeant at the Olympia Police Department said that the task force will make contact with the residents when time permits and determine if there are any law violations. Spencer responded to Grabowski, and thanked him for getting her concern pointed in the right direction. 

Another utility line fire occurred in early July.

Spencer continued to do research and contacted Puget Sound Energy. She also wrote the city attorney on July 8, specifically detailing her concerns and to ask if the operation has the proper permits. Spencer says she never got a response from the city attorney.

A third utility line fire occurred July 30.

Spencer and several other neighbors co-wrote a letter on August 1 to the property owner informing him that they have authorized their insurance agents to pursue damages against him if any activities occurring at his property harm persons or property in the vicinity. She sent copies to several city officials, including the fire chief, the police chief, and city attorney.

Spencer wrote an email to Olympia city council on August 13. She says she did not receive a response from any councilmembers. That same day, she contacted Puget Sound Energy to provide details about the grow operation so it could better evaluate if those activities contributed to the service line fires.

On Tuesday, August 18, Spencer felt compelled to speak publicly about the situation.

Communication from Code Enforcement

On Wednesday, the day after she spoke at city council, Chris Grabowski, the city’s lead code enforcement officer, sent Spencer an email providing details about the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force visit, but did not provide her the date. That information was provided to her by Little Hollywood.

Grabowski said in the email that detectives counted 50 plants on site.
“At the time of the inspection, that was slightly above the maximum 45 allowed, but under the new laws now in effect, the amount has gone up to 60 plants.  (The detective) told me that the grow was a legal one, and that (the task force) had no plans to go back and re-inspect as there was no indication of any illegal activity,” wrote Grabowski.

In an interview, Spencer says she appreciated the email, but it came a little too late.

“No one ever closed the loop with us,” Spencer said.

“This really is such a gray area and I feel pretty whipped and overexposed by this whole situation. I did get some staff to focus on this issue and follow up with me -- with prodding. I asked a lot of questions that were never definitively answered…but what makes me bitter is the big lapse by whoever should have let us know that the task force had done its job and made its conclusions. My emails after the inspection on July 7 should have reminded someone at city hall that crucial information had never been sent to me....” said Spencer to Little Hollywood late this week.

Spencer says she would have preferred to not have spoken publicly, nor ask for media attention, but felt she had no choice. Spencer still has concerns regarding the electrical safety of her home, and other homes on her street.

The Other Side of the Story

Little Hollywood has spoken several times with the resident at the address in question to get his side of this story.

The resident, who does not want to be named, says he is a medical marijuana user. He says he is a retired engineer on Social Security and disability. He says he has had brain surgery and uses the medicine to prevent seizures. He says he has been very up front with his neighbors about his collective garden, and gets along well with many of them. He is upset with his neighbor, Melinda Spencer, who he feels has been harassing him. He says the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force has come to his home twice and he has showed them the proper paperwork.  He admits he put about 50 plants outside during a recent heatwave. The air conditioning runs fulltime because he says marijuana is a fickle plant and needs to stay at a cool temperature. He says his crop is grown organically and he does not use chemicals. He did some work on the home for the owners late last year and says they are aware of his collective garden. He says the house used to be the worst looking one on the block.

“.…I’ve only been doing this since November. This is an expensive thing to do if you’re going to do it right. I’ve got nothing to hide. There’s no 100 plants. This hurts…it’s life changing stuff….” he said.

He currently has an option to buy the home, but now feels like he needs to break his contract and leave the neighborhood. He says he has retained an attorney.

The tenant says he knows of at least seven grow operations within four blocks of his house.

Collective and Cooperative Marijuana Garden Law

A collective grow is not a business, since the intent of the marijuana grow, under current Washington State law, is for the members of the collective to pool their resources to grow medicinal plants for their own consumption. 

According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB), a “collective garden” means qualifying patients share the responsibility for acquiring and supplying the resources required to produce and process cannabis for medical use such as, for example, a location for a collective garden; equipment, supplies, and labor necessary to plant, grow, and harvest cannabis; cannabis plants, seeds, and cuttings; and equipment, supplies, and labor necessary for proper construction, plumbing, wiring, and ventilation of a garden of cannabis plants.

Starting on July 1, 2016, collective gardens will be eliminated, but will allow for the creation of medical marijuana “cooperatives” that may be formed by up to four qualifying patients or designated providers.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed new legislation in July that will make marijuana laws more restrictive. The new law repeals RCW 69.51A.140, which granted cities and counties the authority to adopt and enforce requirements related to medical marijuana, including zoning.

Rules regarding marijuana cooperatives state that they cannot be located within one mile of marijuana retailers; the location must be registered with the WSLCB; they must be located in a domicile of one of the participants; are limited to one cooperative per tax parcel; and may grow up to the total number of plants authorized for each patient, a maximum of 60 plants. Qualifying patients or designated providers may only participate in one cooperative, and are subject to inspection by the WSLCB and law enforcement. The WSLCB may adopt rules relating to security and traceability requirements for cooperatives.

Above: The northeast Olympia neighborhood rocked tonight at the Love our Local Fest on Bethel and San Francisco Avenue. DBST played funkadelic rock.

For more information about this case, go to Little Hollywood, and type key words into the search engine.

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