Despite its ban on recreational marijuana enterprises, Pierce County has reviewed dozens of applications for pot-related state business licenses and is checking each applicant for criminal histories, land-use violations and zoning problems.
County workers have spent more than 110 hours making those checks and finding many problems with the applicants — a review that a pro-legalization attorney says is a waste of time.
“This is just a show so they can get around Washington state law” Tacoma lawyer Jay Berneburg said.
County officials defend the time and money spent . They say it’s necessary to document their concerns to the state Liquor Control Board.
“We want to make sure our concerns are on the record with regard to (a) particular applicant” said County Council attorney Susan Long.
And they have plenty of concerns. Out of 44 Pierce County applications for pot producers and processors received through March, only three met location requirements and didn’t have criminal issues, said council analyst Hugh Taylor. For all but those three, the county forwarded its concerns to the Liquor Control Board.
County project coordinator Melanie Halsan said the most common problem has been applicants who want to open marijuana businesses in locations where they aren’t permitted, such as single-family residences.
The Liquor Control Board is responsible for awarding marijuana business licenses under Initiative 502, the voter-passed law that legalized recreational cannabis.
Meanwhile, county staff are responsible for issuing land-use, building and other permits in unincorporated areas of the county. They refuse to do so for marijuana operations, under a de facto ban the Pierce County Council approved last year.
The Liquor Control Board says it will not recognize local marijuana bans in awarding business licenses. But the board is giving priority to applications from areas where businesses could open because there are no bans.
It has not granted any marijuana business licenses in unincorporated Pierce County.
“We want to get the market up and running” board spokesman Brian Smith said. “Pierce County is not a priority for us because they have a ban in place”
When a county receives a license application from the Liquor Control Board, it has 20 days to approve or disapprove — and to give a reason, if it disapproves.
Pierce County could have chosen not to review the applications. But the County Council “wanted to have the opportunity to comment” Long said.
Documenting issues early is important, Taylor said. “In our opinion, it’s better to prevent the license from being issued in the first place if there’s a problem with it”
Without a license, applicants won’t be able to secure the required permits from the county.
Late last year, the County Council banned recreational pot businesses from unincorporated areas until Congress removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances.
The council overrode a veto by County Executive Pat McCarthy and sided with upholding the federal prohibition against marijuana, even though Washington voters approved I-502 in 2012.
Soon after the council’s action, it reviewed the process for responding to applications.
Council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said last week that the county’s work is necessary.
“If the federal government did act, and (marijuana) did become legal, we would pick up the process and zone according to our rules” Roach said. “Because it’s technically not a ban, there’s still a need to go through that process”
But Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, who supported an outright ban, said researching a proposed marijuana business is unnecessary.
“I think (marijuana) is illegal according to federal law” said McDonald, RPuyallup.
Berneburg said he has about 20 clients who have applied to operate recreational marijuana businesses in unincorporated Pierce County. The consensus among them is that if the state grants them business licenses, they will go ahead and open without obtaining permits from the county.
If that were to happen, the county could order them shut down until they obtained the required permits, said Halsan, of Pierce County Planning & Land Services.
Berneburg said the county’s research is a waste of time and money.
“What they’re doing is going through the motions pretending it’s not a ban” he said. “The reason for that is so that it will appear they’re complying with state law”
Council staff members spent 33 hours processing 44 applications, according to the council’s first quarter “marijuana impact report”
The Sheriff’s Department took 33 hours checking for criminal backgrounds on 93 people involved with the applications.
And Planning & Land Services reviewed zoning and other location requirements, which took 44 hours .
The county received its first retail sales application Tuesday, and it didn’t meet the county’s requirement of being a stand-alone business, Halsan said.
The county expects to receive more applications for the at-large allotment of 17 marijuana retail sales outlets. In addition, the county has received four more producer-processor applications since March, which didn’t meet qualifications.