A Thursday forum in Tacoma will no doubt draw people wondering if marijuana stores or farms are coming to their neighborhoods – and other people hoping to be the ones running those businesses.
They may leave without total clarity. Growing, processing and selling marijuana are about to be allowed by state government, but with tight location restrictions. And the status of recreational marijuana in the eyes of local government depends on whom you ask.
Roger Mayer asked Pierce County for some enlightenment. He’s a real estate agent in Puyallup who hopes to find clients among the growers that will start sprouting up in August if the state Liquor Control Board hands out licenses on schedule.
Mayer wants to know if the county is working to draft zoning for such grow operations. The best county government could do was to give him a June 2012 memo banning the production and distribution of medical marijuana.
Of course, that memo came before Washington voters approved Initiative 502 in November, legalizing the use of marijuana beyond medical needs. But Pierce County officials, like their counterparts in many counties and cities, aren’t yet making plans for the first day someone applies for a license.
“We need to see what the state and the feds come up with, at this point,” said Hunter George, a spokesman for Pierce County.
He noted that marijuana is still classified federally in the group reserved for the most dangerous drugs, known as Schedule 1.
“It’s still listed as a class 1 substance by the feds, so until there’s some clarity in that regard, we’re not planning on changing anything at the moment,” George said.
If they decide to act, local governments could play a significant role in deciding where the stores can go. But it’s not an option for them to just say no.
“They don’t have the ability to opt out of it, but a city can set up zoning and land use (rules). That’s their prerogative,” said Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the liquor board.
Voters who approved I-502 already set rules that amount to a kind of statewide zoning. Growers, processors and retailers will not be allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, libraries, recreation centers, day-care centers, or even bus stations.
There also will be a maximum number of stores in each county, which the liquor board will set.
The 1,000-foot rule could make it inconvenient to find marijuana in dense cities such as Seattle and possibly Tacoma and Spokane, said Alison Holcomb of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, who helped write the initiative and led the campaign for it.
Holcomb said state lawmakers may have to re-examine whether the rule needs loosening to align with 500-foot distance rules for liquor stores, which mostly focus on schools. But she said initiative writers wanted tough restrictions to avoid picking a fight with the federal government, which has issued threatening letters targeting medical-marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools.
“We’re doing something new here, and we expect there will be bumps along the road,” Holcomb said.
The liquor board’s representatives told a gathering of city officials Wednesday that if they want to prepare, the best way is to map the effects of the 1,000-foot requirement, according to the Association of Washington Cities.
Seattle and Spokane have started such a mapping process, Carpenter said. No maps were available from Tacoma or Pierce County.
Tacoma has been waiting. Planning services manager Ian Munce said the city will review draft rules written by the liquor board with the hope of determining before August what’s allowed under those rules and under the city’s zoning laws.
If the city chooses to implement new zoning, that could take about four months, he said. But he said standards proposed last year during the city’s process of setting rules for medical-marijuana dispensaries “could be pretty easily adjusted” to fit the new recreational industry.
Those proposals were scrapped in favor of placing dispensaries under city nuisance rules.
The liquor board must solicit input from local governments when licensing each marijuana business, but it doesn’t have to heed them.
As for whether governments will be able to effectively ban the businesses through zoning, that may be left to the courts to decide.
Holcomb said every Washington county would have to provide legal access to marijuana, but it’s an open question what limits individual cities can impose.
“Certain cities have said they won’t allow it, marijuana, at all,” Carpenter said.
Mayer, the real-estate agent, hopes governments don’t limit marijuana stores to just a few hubs, each one a kind of “Costco” of weed, that draws traffic from far and wide.
“I’m hoping the liquor control board will use (its) authority to circumvent the local authorities,” he said, “if for some reason they’re being resistant and forget which Washington they’re working for.”
Initiative 502 PUBLIC FORUM
WHEN: 6-10 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, Room 315, 1500 Broadway.
6-7 p.m.: Open house with Liquor Control Board and staff.
7-7:05 p.m.: Board welcome.
7:05-7:15 p.m.: Overview of board’s role in implementation and timeline.
7:15-10 p.m.: Public testimony.