State lawmaker, Pierce County councilman threaten pot fight

Staff writerJanuary 14, 2014 

A legal tussle is shaping up between the state and Pierce County over state-licensed pot sellers.

That became clear Tuesday with fighting words from both a state lawmaker and a county councilman.

A proposal to be introduced in the Legislature on Wednesday by Tacoma Rep. David Sawyer would threaten counties and cities that don’t go along with marijuana legalization with legal action and loss of state money.

Separately, new Pierce County Council Chairman Dan Roach said the county would take the state to federal court to fight for its right to keep marijuana businesses out of the county’s unincorporated areas.

A de facto ban on cannabis growers and sellers passed the council in November, a year after voters statewide legalized the drug. The county is retaining an outside lawyer to defend against lawsuits from state-licensed businesses — and maybe now for a more aggressive strategy.

“We will be moving on that ourselves. We’ll not wait for any lawsuit,” said Roach, a Bonney Lake Republican who represents the east county.

The proposal in the Legislature targets all cities and counties that enact bans. Sawyer said he had Pierce County and Lakewood, another holdout, in mind.

“They are both breaking state law,” said Sawyer, a Democrat who represents parts of Lakewood, Tacoma, Spanaway, Parkland and Frederickson. “They are basically ignoring the will of the voters.”

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office is considering the legal question of whether local governments can ban pot businesses.

But on its face, Initiative 502 does not provide a way for cities and counties to opt out of the new regulated marijuana system. The state Liquor Control Board has said it will not recognize local bans as it awards licenses.

Still, some local governments say the state’s defiance of federal law that makes marijuana illegal is forcing them to choose which law to enforce, even though the Obama administration has indicated it will look the other way. Lakewood officials have said they don’t recognize marijuana sales as legal unless federal policy changes. Pierce County’s effective ban is in place unless Congress changes marijuana’s legal status.

The legislation proposed by Sawyer would spell out that local governments must treat pot companies like any other business. It would allow the Liquor Board to punish violators by suing or by withholding their share of revenue from liquor and marijuana taxes and fees, or both.

“I’m a little shocked that he would introduce a bill that would actually hurt his own constituents — taking money away from the very people he represents,” said Roach, who said Sawyer instead was trying to appeal to a “pothead constituency.”

Sawyer said the stakes are high in his area and around the state. If cities and counties delay implementation of legalization, he said, it will only keep black-market drug dealers in business.

Tacoma Democrats Jake Fey and Steve Kirby signed on to Sawyer’s measure, along with several other Democrats and one Republican, Cary Condotta of East Wenatchee.

Local control should prevail, Roach argues. He said his constituents haven’t liked what they’ve seen as pot use comes into the open with the advent of the semi-legal medical marijuana system.

But Sawyer argues that as units of the state, counties can’t challenge Washington on the federal question. “They wouldn’t get standing in federal court because it’s the state suing the state,” he said.

Roach said he had no timetable for a lawsuit but has support from his fellow Republicans who backed the ban. County Council member Joyce McDonald, a Puyallup Republican, was more circumspect.

“That remains to be seen. That’s a possibility,” McDonald said. “There’s nothing yet. I don’t think anything has been decided.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

Staff writer Steve Maynard contributed to this report.

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