Pot dispensaries popping up faster than Starbucks

Maria Castro, a patient services representative at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary, waits for customers, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, in Seattle.

There's a land grab for marijuana dispensaries in Seattle. Here's a look at how the Emerald City's new storefront invasion has moved from coffee shop to marijuana.

Seattle is home to many clichés: gray, soggy winters, extra-long coffee orders, an overabundance of fleece clothing and — add another to the list — the pervasiveness of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Anyone who's lived in the Emerald City at least 10 minutes will tell you that each time they go out for a latte, they discover a new pot shop in their neighborhood.

And they're not exaggerating.

In September 2011, the city licensed 63 businesses it believes to be marijuana dispensaries. (A name like "The 420 Collective" is usually a dead giveaway.) The following September, that number jumped to 145. By late May of this year, it reached 274. That's almost twice the amount of Starbucks in town. (As of a year ago, the city boasted 139 Starbucks locations.)

Related: Marijuana's march toward mainstream confounds feds

This is just the tip of the THC iceberg. Even outside the marijuana industry, not all businesses register for a license.

Seattle City Council President Sally Clark suspects the state's passage of Initiative 502 last November, which legalizes recreational pot use for adults 21 and over, has contributed to the city's explosion of cannabis shops.

"Certainly looking at the names of some of these places, they're not even attempting to pretend to be medical dispensaries," she said.

Seattle real estate attorney Brian Danzig agrees. He suspects many dispensary owners are snapping up marijuana-friendly leases in the hopes of landing one of the 334 recreational seller licenses the state will grant later this year.

"Medical marijuana might be a good Plan B," said Danzig, a partner at Gordon Thomas Honeywell. "If you want to be a commercial operator but you don't get a license, you can still operate a medical business."

Hilary Bricken, attorney with Canna Law Group, a Seattle firm specializing in pot laws, sees many clients looking to dive into the recreational market now, even though it won't be operational until next year.

"A lot of people want to get their branding going so that their name and their products become known," Bricken said. "These people are not getting into medical for the long haul."

Related: New Jersey Gov. Christie signs 'pot-for-tots' measure

Juse Barros opened Evergreen Health Center, a medical dispensary about 30 miles from Seattle, on June 1.

"The time was right," said Barros, who's considering applying for a recreational license this fall. "Washington voters overwhelming approved I-502. It opened the door for a lot more collectives to open up."

But not all locals are greeting the rapidly changing ganja landscape with great big bear hug.

"Definitely we hear concerns about safety," Council President Clark said. "Who is the clientele that come and shop, and what is the safety of the merchandise and the cash on the premises?"

For every naysayer though, there's a marijuana enthusiast thankful to have a safe, accessible place to buy nature's medicine.

Take Dave, a 50-year-old Seattleite who declined to give his last name. A mild-mannered professional who suffers from chronic back pain and insomnia, Dave hadn't smoked pot since college.

Last year, after learning marijuana could ease his pain and help him sleep, he got his medical marijuana card and started sampling the goods from a local dispensary.

"I smoke it in the evenings," Dave said. "It's been helpful."

Also helpful: not having to stand on a street corner to buy a bag.

Of his friendly neighborhood bud business, Dave said, "It's convenient, it's legal and you're not feeling like you're dealing with criminals."


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