Bonney Lake’s ban on recreational marijuana businesses has spurred two lawsuits, filed in Pierce County Superior Court recently, that seek to overturn the city ordinance adopted early this year.
One complaint claims the city’s moratorium and subsequent prohibition on pot retailers, producers and processors are unconstitutional.
The other suit contends the decision to ban pot businesses in the plateau city of more than 18,000 people was based, in part, on “a hearing that was conducted unconstitutionally.” It states a councilman prematurely stopped the attorney of a prospective marijuana retailer from speaking prior to the vote.
Councilman Dan Swatman says he followed proper procedure for public comment. He said the city is confident a judge will uphold its ban.
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The Bonney Lake City Council voted to prohibit pot businesses in January, joining several East Pierce County and other South Sound cities that have done so. The decision went against a city planning commission recommendation to implement marijuana regulations.
The first complaint states Bonney Lake’s ban is preempted by state Initiative 502, which authorized a regulatory system for recreational marijuana after voters approved it in November 2012.
The complaint contends state law does not allow local jurisdictions to skirt implementation of I-502. It also states Bonney Lake’s moratorium and ban constitute “intentional interference” with the operation of a legal business.
Saranjit Bassi, owner of 4Ever Healing LLC, argues that Bonney Lake officials failed to file a formal objection to the state Liquor Control Board regarding his retail license application.
“(The business owners) have expended time and resources preparing to operate a lawful business,” the complaint states, adding that they will lose “significant revenue” because the city won’t grant a business license.
It also states the city’s moratorium and ban were adopted out of fear of “potential harm” rather than evidence of actual harm.
The lawsuit seeks a court order granting Bassi a business license and stopping the city from enforcing its ban. Bassi has secured a lease and planned to open a retail pot shop at 9925 214th Ave. E.
Several residents spoke on both sides of the issue when the proposed ban was brought up at a regular council meeting Jan. 13. Among the speakers were Bassi and his attorney, Chris Crew.
Crew said the ordinance should be based on facts, “not on concerns and fears.” He said there’s no evidence marijuana legalization would cause an increase in crime or use by children, two concerns raised by supporters of the ban.
Remarks by Councilman Swatman after Crew’s testimony sparked the second of the two lawsuits filed March 25. Crew spoke for five minutes at the meeting and requested an additional five minutes as his time expired.
Regular council agendas note that “representatives recognized by the chair who are speaking on behalf of a group may have a total of 10 minutes to speak.” Otherwise, individuals are allotted five minutes.
Crew identified himself as an attorney — and thus a representative, his complaint contends — for the business owners.
His complaint states that Swatman, who was chairman of the meeting due to the mayor’s absence, recognized Crew as a representative and yet did not allow him to keep speaking for the full 10 minutes.
Swatman violated Crew’s right to free speech, the complaint states, by discriminating “on the basis of the speaker’s viewpoint.”
It claims the city’s ban is therefore based on a citizen comment period that was run improperly, and it urges the court to invalidate the anti-pot ordinance.
Swatman told The News Tribune that he ran the meeting properly, stressing that Crew didn’t clearly identify himself as a representative for his clients.
“He claimed to be speaking for a group after he had been speaking for five minutes,” Swatman said. “We can’t have people just making things up in the middle of it.”
Swatman added that Crew’s clients had already spoken individually.
“You don’t get to double-dip the system,” he said.
As for the lawsuit challenging Bonney Lake’s ban, Swatman said court rulings have upheld similar ordinances in other cities.
“It’s clearly within the right of the city to ban the retail sale of marijuana,” he said.
Bonney Lake isn’t the first city to prohibit recreational marijuana or face lawsuits over its ban. Neighboring communities with similar regulations include Puyallup, Sumner and Edgewood. A judge upheld a ban in Fife last summer, but the decision is being appealed.
These and other cities with similar ordinances have cited last year’s advisory opinion issued by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, which says I-502 doesn’t prevent local governments from banning marijuana businesses.
Hearings for the lawsuits challenging Bonney Lake’s ban are tentatively scheduled for July.