Up in smoke.
That’s where a city proposal to authorize medical cannabis businesses in Tacoma was left Tuesday.
Based on legal concerns, Tacoma’s City Council aborted a plan recommended by the city’s planning commission last month that would have created new zoning and land-use regulations for medical pot dispensaries and gardens to operate in parts of the city.
The council, which was set to begin deliberations on the long-awaited ordinance Tuesday, instead removed it from the agenda. City officials contended much of the measure overstepped state and federal law.
“We simply cannot authorize retail storefronts to (sell medical cannabis),” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said.
Instead, the council plans to introduce a far different measure next week – one that would revise Tacoma’s nuisance code and provide an enforcement strategy for dealing with so-called collective gardens, the state’s legal term for communal medical cannabis grow operations.
The new measure, which is still in the works, won’t legally permit or authorize collective gardens in Tacoma. But it’s expected to spell out exactly how the city could enforce them, should such operations be found to exist and draw complaints.
City staffers and council members are still working out the finer details for determining enforcement priorities, including how lightly – or heavily – the city would crack down on collective gardens and in what parts of the city.
The idea, Strickland said, is to find a way to protect city neighborhoods and business districts where such grow operations aren’t wanted, while still providing safe access to medical cannabis for qualified patients under state law.
Several council members signaled any city enforcement plan should incorporate elements of Proposition 1 – the city ballot measure approved by voters last year that made cannabis-related offenses Tacoma’s lowest enforcement priority.
But the new proposal won’t include any language about dispensaries, leaving the controversial pot-distribution centers illegal in the city’s eyes. City officials pointed to the state’s medical cannabis law to justify that inaction – saying the law explicitly speaks to collective gardens but says nothing about dispensaries.
The council’s action Tuesday struck a raw chord with some medical cannabis activists, business owners and patients. For most of the past two years, many of them have waited for Tacoma to clarify how it would deal with the issue.
“You’ve been leaders; you’ve been courageous on this issue,” Jay Berneburg, a lawyer representing dispensary owners, told the council. “Don’t wuss out now.”
Berneburg argued that the city should push the zoning issue to challenge federal marijuana law, not back down from it.
But earlier Tuesday, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli advised the council that the planning commission’s recommendations would put the city at legal risk, if approved.
The commission’s proposal, which largely followed recommendations of a mayor-appointed citizens’ task force, called to create new zoning and land-use regulations that permitted dispensaries and collective gardens in parts of Tacoma.
The plan would have allowed the gardens within Tacoma’s industrial areas and in certain downtown and mixed-used zones. Dispensaries would have been allowed in most commercial-use areas. Sensitive-area buffering would have kept such businesses 1,000 feet or more away from schools, day cares and churches.
“Those are things we cannot, as a city, endorse,” Pauli said.
Pauli also advised that Washington’s medical cannabis law, based on voter-approved Initiative 692, doesn’t protect pot users and possessors from arrest or prosecution. Rather, it spells out an affirmative defense for defendants who can prove they qualify as medical cannabis patients, as defined by the law, she said. The federal Controlled Substances Act also still classifies marijuana as an illegal Schedule 1 drug, Pauli added.
Strickland said she and others will continue to press the federal government to reclassify cannabis – an acation that “would solve the problem,” the mayor said.
Until then, she added, “this is probably the best we can do.”
Tacoma’s explosion of medical cannabis dispensaries in recent years prompted the council to seek a new policy to regulate such businesses.
After spending nearly two years trying to deal with the matter – from seeking to revoke dispensary business licenses, to asking the Legislature to clarify state law, to at least one police raid – the city last year adopted a moratorium on issuing dispensary licenses.
The council called the timeout to “try to see if we could find a solution,” Councilman David Boe said Tuesday. “But we can’t legislate something that is going to be outside of the bounds of state law for the moment.”
Tacoma Planning Commission Chairman Don Erickson said Tuesday he fully understood the council’s decision.
“This is the most difficult issue we’ve dealt with during my two years on the commission,” he said.