The time has come for registered voters in unincorporated Pierce County to take a position on recreational marijuana — again.
Ballots for the April 26 special election will be mailed Thursday. That means the more than 210,000 registered voters in the county’s unincorporated areas can expect to see them soon.
In most areas, the advisory vote will be the only issue on the ballot, though some voters also will see school and fire district requests in east Pierce County.
If voters say yes, recreational marijuana businesses can open after July 1.
If they say no, County Councilwoman Joyce McDonald has said she will bring forward legislation to restore a “de facto” ban on legal marijuana that was lifted at the end of 2015.
County Executive Pat McCarthy, who vetoed the council’s 2013 ban on marijuana, said it’s premature to speculate what she would do if the council acts to reinstate the ban.
The council overrode her veto three years ago, but it is unclear whether it has the votes to do so again.
McCarthy hopes the outcome of the April 26 vote results in “clear and concise” regulations around medical and recreational marijuana.
“We need to quit avoiding the issue,” she said. “Prolonging this conversation is just not in the best interest of the people of Pierce County.”
We’re not looking at changing hearts and minds at this point in the game. People who are going to vote no are going to vote no. We’re just hoping to get the vast majority of people who voted for it the first time to make sure they vote again.
Tedd Wetherbee, recreational marijuana business owner and The Alliance to Protect I-502 founder
Retail marijuana business owner Tedd Wetherbee has little faith the council will leave the issue alone.
“This is state law that passed overwhelmingly three years ago,” Wetherbee said. “The Pierce County Council right now is made up of people pushing personal agendas with complete disregard for the will of their constituents.”
Pierce County voters approved Initiative 502, the legalization of recreational marijuana, by 54 percent in 2012. Of the 341,079 votes counted in Pierce County, 184,333 were cast in favor of legalizing the drug.
Wetherbee cites the 2012 vote as an example that some council members refuse to listen to the public when it conflicts with their personal views.
Wetherbee is co-owner of The Gallery, a retail marijuana store that has operated for the past year in the Parkland area without a county-required permit.
Wetherbee looked to do business in Gig Harbor and Fife, only to be turned away after the cities implemented bans on marijuana sales.
He spearheaded creation of the Alliance to Protect I-502, a political action committee formed to raise awareness about the April 26 vote.
After having almost 40 years in elected office I think the advisory vote thing is silly That’s why the County Council is there, to make decisions.
Brian Sonntag, former state and Pierce County auditor
McDonald disagrees that the council isn’t listening to the public. On the contrary, the election gives unincorporated voters a voice, she said.
The ban of recreational marijuana businesses in several South Sound cities has pushed the “growing, distribution and retail sales of marijuana out into the unincorporated areas of Pierce County,” she said.
“That’s not right, it’s not fair and it’s putting at risk the children who live in the unincorporated areas,” McDonald said. “They need to have a say rather than have all of this pushed into their backyards just because the people in the cities don’t want to have it.”
The vote won’t directly change county code, but will show whether public opinion has changed about marijuana since 2012.
Former state and Pierce County Auditor Brian Sonntag co-wrote the voter pamphlet statement against allowing marijuana sales in Pierce County.
He said that he morally opposes the legalization of marijuana and worries that easy access to the drug will mean an increase in use among children.
“I’m pretty much against any expanded use of marijuana, period,” Sonntag said. “I’ve seen too many examples of the negative effects in people.”
They need to have a say rather than have all of this pushed into their backyards just because the people in the cities don’t want to have it.
Joyce McDonald, Pierce County Councilwoman on issues facing rural residents
But he thinks the County Council is shirking its duties by calling for the costly advisory vote.
“After having almost 40 years in elected office, I think the advisory vote thing is silly,” he said. He noted the $425,000 price tag to put the measure on the ballot. “That’s why the County Council is there, to make decisions. They made a decision. Make a law, pass an ordinance and move on.”
Wetherbee said he is not looking to change people’s opinions about marijuana and just wants to make sure the people who once supported pot sales vote for them again.
“The story is, ‘Hey this is legal and they’re wasting a ton of money for people to vote on it again, but make sure you vote,’ ” he said.
“We’re not looking at changing hearts and minds at this point in the game. People who are going to vote no are going to vote no,” he said.
“We’re just hoping to get the vast majority of people who voted for it the first time to make sure they vote again.”
The advisory question on the ballot
Pierce County registered voters will be asked to vote for or against allowing recreational marijuana production, processing and retail sales in unincorporated Pierce County.
A “yes” vote means people want to see marijuana businesses in specified zones.
A “no” vote means they don’t.