Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy has vetoed the County Council’s ordinance that prohibits licensed marijuana businesses from operating until Congress removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances.
McCarthy said the ordinance conflicts with state law, which the council is obligated to follow.
In a letter released Monday, McCarthy said she has concerns about legal risks the council’s ordinance poses regarding “federal authorization.” She urged the council to “approve clear and well-defined zoning regulations that protect our neighborhoods.”
Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, said Monday she expects the council will vote Dec. 10 on whether to overturn McCarthy’s veto. An override requires five of seven council votes.
McDonald, who supports an override, said the decision whether to legalize marijuana needs to be made at the federal level.
“Her concern is mostly about litigation,” McDonald said. “I understand her concerns but I don’t think we can overlook lightly federal law.”
The council adopted the ordinance Nov. 5 by a vote of 4-3.
The override vote is scheduled for Dec. 10 so that a decision would take effect by the time the council’s current moratorium on marijuana businesses expires Jan. 2.
The veto was McCarthy’s fifth since she took office in 2009. The County Council overturned two of the past four.
Council member Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, appears to hold the swing vote. Of the council’s five Republicans, Richardson is the only one who voted against the marijuana ordinance.
Richardson said Monday his “inclination” is not to vote for an override. Richardson said he will instead reintroduce his proposal to extend the county’s current moratorium on marijuana businesses by five months. That would allow time for the Legislature to decide whether to enact recommendations from state agencies such as requiring medical marijuana to be sold at licensed retail outlets.
Richardson’s ordinance would declare an emergency, which would allow it to take effect immediately once approved by the county executive. Such measures require five “yes” votes.
McCarthy said the council can’t stop the state from issuing licenses so it should focus on zoning where marijuana businesses should go.
“Yes, the state law is in conflict with federal law, but the U.S. Department of Justice in August announced it is not going to challenge the state law at this time,” said McCarthy, a Democrat. “The county is an entity of the state, and we cannot pass an ordinance that is in conflict with the state.”
Washington voters approved Initiative 502 last year, legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
The state Liquor Control Board says it will start issuing licenses for marijuana businesses sometime in March. The liquor board says I-502 doesn’t allow for a local ban.
Like the council, McCarthy said she doesn’t like the law.
“But we need to put controls in place, given that the voters voted this in,” she said in an interview.
McCarthy described her action as a “friendly veto.” But she said the council’s ordinance is “ostensibly a ban.” She said she doesn’t believe Congress will remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances.
When the council adopted the ordinance regulating marijuana businesses, Rick Talbert and Connie Ladenburg, both Tacoma Democrats, opposed it and called the measure a ban.
Sponsor Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, said it wasn’t. “This bill does follow state law and addresses the concerns of the people,” Flemming said.
Also voting with Flemming for the ordinance were: Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake; Jim McCune, R-Graham and McDonald.
The ordinance – which would apply only to marijuana businesses in the unincorporated county – would set up zoning of production and processing operations, but limit retail outlets to urban areas. None of those businesses could operate with county approval until Congress takes marijuana off the controlled-substance list.
McCarthy said she supports limits in the ordinance that prohibit marijuana establishments near each other and houses of worship. But she voiced concern about the legality of the ordinance limiting retail sales businesses to a single building, prohibiting them in strip malls.
The county and cities are choosing between abiding by state law, which allows for the sale of recreational marijuana, and enforcing federal law that prohibits it.
Earlier this month, the Tacoma City Council approved two interim laws relating to recreational marijuana sales. The city’s new laws, one for land use and another for its nuisance code, are nearly identical to the state’s suggested laws for growing, processing and selling recreational marijuana.
University Place recently extended its moratorium on marijuana businesses. Lakewood says marijuana businesses will have to prove they’re legal before they can open their doors within city limits.
Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the liquor control board, asked Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Nov. 1 for an opinion as to whether local governments can ban or enact de facto bans on pot businesses. Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said it usually takes about two months for an opinion to be issued.