It’s pretty easy to walk past one of downtown’s newest businesses. There’s no sign for Northern Cross, a medical marijuana collective that opened in April, and you can’t see through the grey tinted windows.
For perhaps one of the more controversial businesses in town, Northern Cross is hidden in plain sight — and that’s how owner Martin Nickerson wants it. On one hand, his downtown location provides easy access to the more than 1,300 medical marijuana patients who use the dispensary. On the other hand, it also attracts more attention from those who might shut it down.
“It’s tough to run one of these and keep within the legal boundaries,” Nickerson said.
Though Washington voters approved medical marijuana in 1998, state law is still vague about how to provide prescription holders with medical marijuana. Dispensary owners such as Nickerson are pushing the state to define the rules — in part by petitioning lawmakers and also by simply being open for business.
“That’s why we are here and showing the public that we can be a good, tax-paying business,” Nickerson said. “It’s a great business that we’d like to see succeed and obtain the public’s acceptance.”
Technically, Northern Cross is a nonprofit collective, meaning it’s a group of prescription holders that have joined together to provide medication for each other. The collective has its own network of growers that provides the dispensary with about 30 strains of cannabis and a 25 different types of “medibles,” food made with marijuana-infused butter or oils.
This type of edible medicine is very popular, Nickerson said, because it’s easy to control the dose. Most of the items at Northern Cross are organic and they also offer gluten-free and sugar-free options.
“We don’t promote smoking; we prefer vaporizing and eating it,” Nickerson said.
Prices for medical marijuana vary for each collective, but typically range from $5 per gram to $20 per gram depending on the strain of cannabis.
Nickerson isn’t the only one in Bellingham running a medical marijuana collective and seeking answers from the state. Dennis Crowley opened KGB Collective in Fairhaven at the beginning of July, knowing that the rules could change at any time.
“So many people are panicked about what might happen. It’s scary, for sure, because you never know if the laws will change,” Crowley said. “The law is so general it’s just crazy.”
The law currently allows individual patients to have up to 15 cannabis plants and 24 ounces of useable cannabis at a time. Collective gardens can grow up to 45 plants at a time for a maximum of 10 patients.
The problem with this system, Crowley said, is that is requires a large number of growers with the know-how to tend to a collective garden.
“People that just start growing (cannabis) often don’t succeed,” he said, drawing similarities to novice backyard gardeners. “There’s also security factors of growing it, too — people break in and steal it.”
Collectives also have to deal with the intricacies of the prescription process. Before selling cannabis to a patient, the collective first verifies that the prescription is real and still valid (most have to be renewed yearly). But there is no standard prescription form, leaving collectives to do some sleuthing to authenticate the prescription and sometimes having to tell patients that they paid for a fake prescription.
“It’s hard to tell someone ‘No’ because of a paperwork issue, or they come in without real prescriptions and they paid for it,” Crowley said. “There needs to be one standard card or one standard form. If all the doctors were on the same system, that would make it easier.”
A growing number of places that offer medical marijuana prescriptions are moving to an online prescription verification system, which Crowley said he supports.
The vagaries of the current system have prompted a new push to decriminalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol.
“There’s no clairty on what the law allows,” said Alison Holcomb, campaign director for New Approach Washington. “It’s not clear whether you can provide access to patients the way a licensed and regulated business would. And from the patient’s perspective, there are no standards about the quality of cannabis they are receiving.”
New Approach Washington is currently gathering signatures around the state for an initiative that would allow distribution of marijuana to adults 21 and older through marijuana-only stores that would be licensed and regulated by the Liquor Control Board (LCB). Production of cannabis and the processing of cannabis-infused products would also be regulated by the LCB.
Under the proposed initiative, taxes on marijuana sales would add an estimated $215 million in revenue for the state. New Approach Washington has until December to gather more than 241,000 signatures.
“Most of the dispensaries that we’ve talked to appreciate that this would give them some structure and assurance that what they’re doing is safe under state law,” Holcomb said.
While awaiting more definition from the state, most dispensaries have put in place a series of precautions, such as listing prices as donations and being staffed with volunteers rather than employees.
At KGB Collective, Crowley has patients sign a three-page membership agreement that outlines the rules of the collective, such as no loitering at the collective.
“People just come in here, get what they need and they’re out the door,” Crowley said.
At Northern Cross, Nickerson makes sure that the volunteer staff of eight people complies with the one provider per patient rule, meaning there are never more patients than volunteers allowed in the secure area. This means patients sometimes have to wait in the lobby during busy hours.
“Our lobby will fill up sometimes,” he said. “There’s a huge need for this in Whatcom County.”