Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series on marijuana and the Key Peninsula. The first provided historical background. Here the focus is on some of the risks and benefits as well as the impact of recent legislation on Key Pen dispensaries. The final article will cover cultivation.

For those whose exposure to marijuana is limited, or ended several decades ago, the cannabis landscape presents a whole new world, and the Key Peninsula is in the middle of that changing landscape. For now, those who qualify for medical use can make purchases at one of the six medicinal marijuana dispensaries along the KP Highway.

That will change next July, when dispensaries will be required to meet stricter regulatory requirements and will also serve customers buying recreational pot. The Pierce County Council is expected to approve an ordinance to allow recreational stores in unincorporated areas. But only one local dispensary will qualify to convert based on county zoning requirements — KP Healing Center, next door to the 76 station within the Lake Kathryn Village Rural Activity Center.

Passage of the ordinance requires four of seven votes from the council. At the Nov. 10 meeting, the council passed a budget amendment to establish a marijuana enforcement fund-in that provides the sheriff’s department and the prosecuting attorney’s office the resources needed to close the illegal dispensaries and prosecute violators. It will be funded by excise tax income from marijuana sales.

On Dec. 8, the council is expected to approve the ordinance, clearing the way to licensing a store on the Key Peninsula that could sell both medicinal and recreational marijuana.

By July 2016, all medical dispensaries must meet the same requirements as recreational shops to qualify for a license, as set by the Washington State Liquor Control Board. This includes zoning restrictions. Stores must be in rural activity center (RAC) zones and cannot be less than 1,000 feet from public spaces where children are present, such as schools, libraries and parks.

Councilman Derek Young, who represents the Key Peninsula and co-sponsored the ordinance, said that it is possible but very unlikely that zoning exceptions will be made.

KP Healing Center, which opened in early 2013, is the oldest of the current dispensaries. Nick Hetterscheidt, who runs the business, said, “We fully intend to continue to provide services to our medical patients, and will open our doors to the recreational market as well.”

Feelings and opinions about marijuana use are strong and divergent. Some see marijuana as dangerous and a gateway drug. Others see real benefit for medical patients who would suffer if unable to access what has made a big difference in their health and well-being.

But there is common ground as well. Law enforcement and the medical dispensary owners speak with a single voice on the issue of use by adolescents — they should not use it.

Present owners acknowledge that up until now regulation of their industry has been absent and that some regulation is warranted. But they also worry that the new rules will significantly decrease access, cost and choice for their patients. All the current operations say they have established patient registration, keep careful records to follow their clients and are passionate about the service they offer as well as the quality of their products.

Clint Pipkin, who along with his wife and brother owns the two Herb N Wellness dispensaries, is passionate about the benefits of medical marijuana. He was grateful when medical marijuana was decriminalized.

“We have come out from under the radar and people are beginning to understand that it can really be helpful,” he said.

When asked about recreational marijuana, he said, “We treat it like alcohol. It is not for everyone and certainly not for children.”

His stores currently do not meet zoning requirements for licensing. The shop in Key Center is less than 1,000 feet from the library and his second store is zoned as rural neighborhood center, not a rural activity center. Pipkin plans to appeal.

None of the other three local dispensaries plan to apply for licenses. KP Health and Wellness, near KP Healing Center, will close. Tony McGriff, who opened KP Medicinals in Home, said that his business has been slower than expected and he does not plan to apply for a license.

Bruce and Michelle Williams opened Purdy Farms Veganic in Key Center in July 2014. Their marijuana is not fertilized with animal products and they feel it is superior for those with immune deficiencies. They hope to qualify for a license to grow but plan to close their store by next July.

Safety Concerns

According to the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, “Adults who don’t have heart disease or psychiatric conditions, don’t get high during pregnancy or when it’s dangerous, and use pot occasionally probably aren’t at risk of any harm to their health.”

But there are concerns around use in adolescence and pregnancy, in large part because of the sensitivity of the developing brain. And the National Institutes of Health says there is strong evidence of a “link between marijuana use and psychotic disorders in those with a preexisting genetic or other vulnerability. …Other, less consistent associations have been reported between marijuana use and depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts among teens, and personality disorders.”

According to a study in Lancet Psychiatry, a respected medical journal, no increase in use by teens was found in states that legalized medical marijuana.

A recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance showed no increase in adolescent use since legalization of recreational marijuana.

But the experience of the local sheriff’s department may reflect a different picture. Sgt. Brian Ward spoke with the school resource officer who is primarily located at Peninsula High. The officer observed that since legalization, he has seen a shift in attitude about marijuana — that teens are more likely to shrug off the impact of marijuana use. There have also been more reported incidents of dealing.

“Having been assigned to the drug unit for nine years in the past, I consider marijuana a ‘gateway drug’ when it comes to children,” said Lt. Larry Minturn. “Decriminalization sends the wrong message to our children. I personally think that before we as a society decide to loosen drug restrictions, we need to take into account what might be the effect on our kids, short term and long term.”

According to the NIH website, more research is needed to determine whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug. In animal studies, it can prime the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs. But so do alcohol and tobacco, and most people who use marijuana do not go on to use other “harder substances.”

It is possible that people who are vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with more readily available substances and their subsequent social interactions with other drug users increases their chances of trying other drugs.

Ward said that in terms of crime on the Key Peninsula in general, butane extraction, which can result in exposions, has been more prevalent. He noted that there have been thefts both of crops and from the stores, but he did not feel that these have had a big impact on the work of his department.

The biology of cannabis

Although marijuana was introduced to this country in the early 1900s, it took decades for researchers to understand how it worked.

Cannabinoids are the components of most interest in marijuana  — the two most studied are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). According to HistoryLink, an online resource for Washington state history, cannabinoid receptors in the brain were first discovered in 1990. In 1992, it was discovered that the body produces its own cannabinoids. They affect how humans relax, sleep, eat, forget and protect.

There are two species of marijuana — Indica and Sativa. Indicas are higher in CBD content; THC dominates Sativas. Hybrids have been bred to offer different balances in CBD and THC content. It is available for use in three forms: dried buds and flowers, as a compressed resin (hashish) and as an oil. It can be smoked, ingested or applied topically.

Cannabis sold now is not what it was 40 years ago. According to the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, it is, as measured by THC levels, two to seven times more potent than it was in the 1960s. This is in part because of selective breeding but also because what is now sold is flower buds rather than stems and leaves.

The National Institutes of Health website notes that THC is the psychoactive cannabinoid. It increases appetite and reduces nausea. The FDA-approved, THC-based medications are used for these purposes. THC may also decrease pain, inflammation (swelling and redness) and muscle control problems.

CBD is not psychoactive. It may be useful in reducing pain and inflammation, controlling epileptic seizures and possibly even treating mental illness and addictions.

Researchers are exploring the possible uses of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids for medical treatment. Scientists are also conducting studies with marijuana and its extracts to treat numerous diseases and conditions, such as autoimmune diseases, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, pain, seizures, substance use disorders and mental disorders.

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