Employees of The Healing Leaf collective in Lake Stevens, Wash., show some of their product during "Studio 4/20," a marijuana celebration put on by DOPE Magazine at 7 Point Studios in Seattle in April 2013. (Joshua Trujillo, seattlepi.com file)

Are Seattle police overstepping with pot business notifications?

Washington state regulators are processing more than 7,000 cannabis business applications received during the month-long licensing window that ended Dec. 20. As part of that process, the state is notifying cities and counties about potential pot businesses in their jurisdictions.

The City of Seattle, through the Seattle Police Department, has been notifying neighbors of cannabis license applications — as it might if a liquor-licensed club were to open in the area. But some say Seattle cops are going further than a simple notice and suggesting potential cannabis complaints neighbors can send to state authorities.

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“I was really surprised when I saw it,” attorney Kurt Boehl, who represents numerous cannabis business clients, said of an email he gave to The Cannabist. “It seems contrary to the stance the City of Seattle has taken for so long on marijuana.”

What shocked Boehl was an e-mail from SPD officer Matthew Hurst to Clear Channel Communications about a potential legal pot grow in Seattle’s industrial area. Clear Channel owns a radio station that produces a temporary haunted house in a nearby warehouse. The letter said that state regulators were still considering the grow application — from one of Boehl’s clients — and noted there was still time for the radio station to file an objection. The officer then wrote:

“I thought it might be of concern to you since I’m sure many of your patrons to the haunted house are children and families. Some other potential concerns could be the strong odor associated with the production of the marijuana, and the possible increase in criminal activity in the area associated with the production of marijuana.”

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Boehl thinks the city has its facts wrong and is concerned the tone of the police letters will generate unfounded fear among neighbors of marijuana businesses. “No statistics show an increase in crime because of a cannabis production facility or retail facility,” said Boehl.

A number of calls to the SPD officer who wrote the e-mail went unreturned, but SPD spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb says the department is part of the city’s internal “Cannabis Compliance Team” and is mostly just doing the job assigned them. But he admits that officers shouldn’t suggest specific cannabis complaints to neighbors. “There shouldn’t be any editorializing, and I can see, based on the e-mail you sent, that some might construe that as editorializing,” says Whitcomb.

Boehl worries that state regulators overwhelmed by thousands of marijuana license applications will look for any excuse to clear some of those files from their desks, including objections from neighbors. He says the police letters have generated at least one formal complaint against his client. When he asked City of Seattle staff to provide clearer guidance to cops tasked with cannabis community outreach, he was told the city would not “micromanage” its officers, Boehl said.

Whether such anti-pot “editorializing” by Seattle police is an isolated error or common practice is unclear. Whitcomb is uncertain, and a public records request for similar outreach emails is expected to take six weeks to fulfill. But Whitcomb says the letter should not be construed as the police department’s official position.

“We’re actually doing a public service,” said Whitcomb. “We’re certainly not trying to be an obstacle.”