Entrepreneurs hoping to sell marijuana from a Lakewood storefront will have to prove it’s legal under federal law before they can open their doors in city limits.
That’s the opinion of City Attorney Heidi Ann Wachter, who told the City Council on Tuesday that Lakewood’s business license process requires all businesses to show they meet local, state and federal laws.
That last hurdle is the one that might prove impossible to clear.
State regulators have allocated two retail licenses to Pierce County’s second-largest city. But aspiring recreational marijuana business owners will be hard-pressed to persuade city officials to grant a license because marijuana is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Like other municipalities, Lakewood must choose between abiding by state law, which allows the sale of recreational marijuana, or enforcing federal law that prohibits it.
If the city sides with federal regulations and denies a license, it opens itself to a lawsuit from potential business owners.
“If we do anything that significantly inhibits their ability to start what they believe is a lawful business, they could file a lawsuit,” Wachter said.
She also acknowledged that voters in a majority of Lakewood’s precincts favored Initiative 502 last November.
Lakewood leaders aren’t happy with the position they’ve been put in.
“There are so many higher priorities,” Councilwoman Helen McGovern-Pilant said. “I don’t feel the rush to be the first city to be tackling this legally. I wouldn’t even want to be the second or third city.”
Other council members agreed, saying instead they want to take a “wait and see” approach.
That’s different from what the neighboring Tacoma City Council and the Pierce County Council did recently.
County leaders prohibited cannabis-related businesses until the federal government removes marijuana from its banned-substance list. Tacoma city leaders approved interim regulations that would allow licensed recreational marijuana sales in certain zones.
Some in Lakewood hope entrepreneurs looking to get into the business will head to Tacoma, where there are as many as eight retail pot licenses available.
No medical marijuana dispensaries have opened in Lakewood, leaving some to wonder if Lakewood will also be ignored by recreational operations.
“There’s a chance this could pass us right over,” Wachter said.
Lakewood also is taking a different route than cities such as neighboring University Place, which recently extended its moratorium on pot operations for another six months. Wachter said that’s unnecessary in Lakewood because the city doesn’t need more time to decide.
Even if no one applies to open a business in Lakewood right away, the city will be watching what happens around the region. The city is also waiting to hear from the state how it will regulate recreational marijuana production and processing operations.
One thing’s for certain: Lakewood puts no faith in a U.S. Department of Justice letter that gives Washington and Colorado some leeway with their voter-approved pot laws. Attorney General Eric Holder said in the August letter that his office will take a hands-off approach for now — as long as states keep a tight lid on their marijuana industries.
“From a legal perspective, that letter is air. It means nothing,” Wachter said. “It just creates this whole parallel universe where we’re just ignoring the federal prohibition.”
Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467