The Tacoma City Council listened to public testimony Tuesday about a zoning and land-use proposal that would allow licensed cannabis dispensaries and collective gardens to operate in the city.
“So far, I see this as an objective policy that is going to work,” said Tom Leach, a self-described business owner who initially had doubts about the plan.
Nearly 11 months after the council issued a moratorium on business licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries, Tuesday’s hearing gave the public a chance to weigh in on a zoning framework that since has been formulated to allow such businesses, but regulate them. About a dozen people spoke.
“We want legitimate, qualifying patients to have access to medical cannabis,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said before public testimony. “What we don’t want is illegal drug dealing.”
After a task force appointed by Strickland issued recommendations to Tacoma’s planning commission, that panel considered – and largely followed – those suggestions when finalizing a proposal this month. A final council vote on the land-use and zoning measure is expected July 17.
The proposal would allow so-called collective gardens – medical marijuana grow operations – in the city’s industrial zones and in certain downtown and mixed-use zones. That essentially would concentrate such operations in Tacoma’s port area and along South Tacoma Way.
Meantime, distribution centers – dispensaries that deliver cannabis products to patients – would be allowed in city zoning districts where commercial uses now are allowed.
“They would be pretty well spread across the city,” said city planner Lucas Shaddock.
The plan also calls for restricting dispensaries and gardens from locating within 1,000 feet of day cares, religious facilities or schools.
Other restrictions generally would limit dispensaries to 2,000 square feet and collective gardens to a maximum of six at one site.
The commission also recommended that the city’s legal department create a licensing program for such facilities. Any medical cannabis facility now operating would have to start anew – by applying for a new license and complying to the new rules, once adopted.
Several dispensary operators and their supporters told the council Tuesday they would be forced to relocate under the plan’s restrictions.
Jay Berneburg, an attorney who represents about 20 dispensaries in Tacoma, said one of his clients has invested about $75,000 in a dispensary near a church.
“My client, under this proposal, would be forced to move,” he said.
He suggested the council adopt an ordinance that provides “some kind of exception or variance to existing businesses out there.”
Jim Rich, who represents the South Tacoma Business District Association, said about five cannabis dispensaries have opened in South Tacoma since the council enacted the moratorium by applying for different types of business licenses.
Worrying such businesses will continue to converge on South Tacoma, Rich asked the council to consider including a provision that disperses such facilities.
“We don’t want South Tacoma to become the Green Cross Center of the city,” he said.
Tacoma lawyer Stan Rumbaugh, who co-chaired the task force that provided the framework for the planning commission’s proposal, said the group worked hard to strike a balance that would allow marijuana’s “compassionate use” for patients, but limit its “commercial use” for drug users.
Rumbaugh also noted any zoning proposal to allow such cannabis facilities anywhere in the city is “simply irreconcilable” to federal Controlled Substances Act, which outlaws marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.
Last year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee petitioned the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a drug with accepted medical uses. This month, Strickland introduced a successful resolution at the U.S. Conference of Mayors supporting the Gregoire-Chafee petition.