Home to Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Americans since the early 1980s, Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood is facing the increasing presence of medical-marijuana dispensaries.
Three medical-marijuana dispensaries currently exist in the neighborhood: Columbia City Holistic Health, The Green Door Seattle, and Seattle Caregivers, according to Tam Nguyen, co-owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Tamarind Tree and board president of the community-development organization Friends of Little Saigon.
The first of these three stores sits just one block apart from the other two, which are housed in the same building, by the corner of S. Jackson Street and 12th Avenue S.
Tam Nguyen said plans to open three more dispensaries in the vicinity are in the works despite the possibility that they would have to obtain a currently nonexistent state-issued license to operate or be considered in violation of city law and subject to enforcement action.
The details of such enforcement action would depend on how Senate Bill 5052 fares in the end, according to John Schochet, deputy chief of staff of the Seattle City attorney’s office. The bill, which was passed last Friday by the Washington state House and will go to the state Senate for a final concurrence vote, represents the next step in the Legislature’s efforts to reconcile its medical and recreational marijuana industries.
“The one thing that I can say is that regardless of how those details work, we want to move to a system where all of the store fronts are gonna have to have state licenses and be subject to all those regulations, which are designed to protect kids from being able to access marijuana,” Schochet said.
Tam Nguyen expressed concerns that these dispensaries may contribute to an increase in violence and crime in this area of Seattle’s International District.
“The crime rate has gone up [and] the disturbance in our community has gone up,” Tam Nguyen said. “Customers who come into these stores are not regular consumers of Little Saigon’s products and services.”
Elaine Ishihara, director of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Advocating Together for Healthy Communities (APICAT), shared a similar sentiment.
“The increasing number of marijuana dispensaries in Little Saigon and the International District is as much a concern as the people that it attracts to the community,” Ishihara said. “There’s no need for this many dispensaries to exist within a one-block radius.”
The Green Door Seattle has been at its current address since March 2012 while Columbia City Holistic Health began operating in April 2014, a little more than six months before Seattle Caregivers followed suit, based on data provided by Seattle’s Marijuana Implementation Coordinator Cherie MacLeod.
Tam Nguyen is not the only one to have noticed a rise in public disturbances in Little Saigon, especially around the medical dispensaries. Minh-Duc Nguyen, founder and executive director of Helping Link, a 22-year-old nonprofit organization, has observed comparable instances.
Aimed to provide the Vietnamese community with programs and resources to adapt and succeed in America, Helping Link is located within about 500 feet of the three dispensaries.
“If you spend the evening here, you’ll see lots of fighting across the street,” Minh-Duc Nguyen said.
Minh-Duc Nguyen added that she’s also learned of car break-ins in the neighborhood and believes these contribute to a drop in enrollment of her organization’s after-school program and English as a second language classes.
“Our students and participants don’t want to come to our class only to have to incur damage to their cars later,” Minh-Duc Nguyen said.
From a business perspective, Tam Nguyen acknowledges the impact these public issues have on his restaurant and its performance and reputation.
“Our restaurant gets affected by having a bad rap around this issue. Consumers are afraid to come to this area,” he said. “As a consumer, when you have a family, you don’t want to deal with such issues so it’s very hard for our business to attract that kind of guest that wants to come to our area.”
Tam Nguyen said he’s received a number of complaints from his customers and staff who are concerned about their safety and the security of their belongings in the neighborhood.
“As an employee, half your head is out looking at your car and half your head is right here [working] because you know this incident happens in this corner of town and you happen to work in this corner of town,” Tam Nguyen said.
The marijuana legalization initiative, measure I-502, approved in Washington State in late 2012 stipulates that retail stores selling recreational marijuana must not be located within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, and public facilities. However, because medical-marijuana dispensaries are not regulated under I-502 or medical-marijuana laws, they don’t have to comply with the distance rule as recreational retailers do.
Still, the proximity of these medical dispensaries in Little Saigon to Helping Link and its after-school program attended mostly by children of minority communities is troubling for Minh-Duc Nguyen.
“Many of the families who live in this neighborhood are non-native English speakers or newly arrived. They want to build a better life for themselves and their families in a new country,” Minh-Duc Nguyen said. “They don’t want their kids exposed to that.”
Tam Nguyen said he, along with other business owners and community members, holds monthly public safety meetings with The Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct to share their concerns about these dispensaries and the negative changes they’ve seen in the area. Yet, he said he hasn’t seen any concrete, long-term action from the authorities.
“We’ve been telling them about these issues for months and years. We have no help from any department who has come forward to assist us yet,” Tam Nguyen said. “As an employer and consumer doing business in this area, we want to know what the city is doing for our community—a vulnerable community that is on the marginal side of society dealing with a complex issue.”
“The police come to the meetings and said they’re looking at it but the issue’s still here. I don’t know what kind of work they’re doing, but I haven’t seen any changes or much police presence around,” he added.
Community members in the neighborhood also face language barriers and often do not report incidents for fear of retaliation by offenders, Tam Nguyen said, which can lead to an underreporting of crimes committed in Little Saigon.
Despite these obstacles, Tam Nguyen encourages others to speak up and continue to inform the authorities of their concerns and neighborhood happenings and demand city officials to respond to the damage that has happened in the community.
To the restaurant owner, efforts to help improve and protect Little Saigon from these issues are integral to the preservation of not only his livelihood, but also something more personal.
“I’m open to talking to anybody about problems that Little Saigon has at hand and to let people know,” Tam Nguyen said. “The bottom line is this is my home, this is my identity and if I allow other people to take my identity away, to take my home away, who am I as a person?”
Requests for comments from the Seattle Police Department have been made, but responses were not received in time for publication.
Requests for comments from The Green Door Seattle and Columbia City Holistic Health have not been returned.