Marijuana

As first pot store in unincorporated Pierce County prepares to open, county officials prepare to close it

The first retail marijuana store in unincorporated Pierce County might open as soon as next week in Parkland, setting up a showdown with the county over its de facto ban on pot businesses.

The store is called Green Collar, and it’s getting ready to open at 10422 Pacific Ave S. Pierce County officials say they could force the retail operation to close if it opens, though any shutdown wouldn’t happen immediately.

Officials say the process could take at least three months.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit against the county will be filed this week, says the lawyer for Green Collar.

Tacoma attorney Jay Berneburg said he expects to file suit on behalf of Green Collar and nearly a dozen other marijuana businesses he represents that want to open in the county. Berneburg said his lawsuit will claim the county's marijuana ban amounts to "tortious interference of business."

“It’s a violation of state law,” Berneburg said. “We’re going to strike first.”

Pierce County notified the owners of Green Collar, LLC, last week that the store doesn’t comply with county regulations. Green Collar is the first and only marijuana business so far to receive a license from the state Liquor Control Board to operate in unincorporated Pierce County.

The county’s notice included regulations approved by the County Council in December, when it overrode County Executive Pat McCarthy’s veto of the ordinance.

The rules stipulate that the county won’t approve an application for a marijuana-licensed business until Congress removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances.

The county included a letter it sent to the Liquor Control Board prior to the state’s license approval. The letter says Green Collar also violates county regulations because it is located in a building with a restaurant.

“Pierce County limits retail outlets to a detached building containing no additional businesses,” wrote County Council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake.

Green Collar is located next to El Charrito Mexican Restaurant.

The Liquor Control Board is responsible for awarding marijuana business licenses under Initiative 502, the law approved by voters in 2012 that legalized recreational cannabis.

But besides meeting the Liquor Control Board’s requirements, Green Collar “must also comply with Pierce County Development regulations,” wrote Melanie Halsan, of Planning and Land Services.

County staff are responsible for issuing land-use, building and other permits in unincorporated areas of the county. Recreational marijuana businesses need a tenant occupancy permit and a conditional use permit from the county to operate, Halsan said. Green Collar has neither.

In Tacoma, the first retail marijuana store in the city opened Friday.

Berneburg said his legal action against the county will become one of a number of cases in the state arguing that local prohibition of marijuana businesses conflicts with state law.

Lawyers already have filed lawsuits against the cities of Fife and Wenatchee, challenging bans adopted by those cities.

“State law preempts the county from opting out of 502 and banning the deployment of production, processing and retail facilities,” Berneburg said.

Stewart Estes, a Seattle lawyer representing Pierce County on its marijuana ordinance, could not be reached for comment.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson moved last week to intervene in marijuana lawsuits against Fife and Wenatchee, saying the state has a duty to defend I-502.

The county’s action to shut down Green Collar will move at a deliberate pace.

It will treat the marijuana retailer like any other business and must first receive a complaint, said Halsan, project coordinator with county Planning and Land Services.

The complaint could be filed by any citizen, including a County Council member, said Steve Wamback, an administrator with Public Works and Utilities.

This triggers a minimum 92-day process that includes notices, site visits and potential appeals.

If Green Collar failed to comply, the county would order it shut down, said deputy prosecuting attorney Cort O’Connor. That order could be appealed to the Pierce County hearings examiner.

If Pierce County officials try to shut down Green Collar, Berneburg said he would seek a court injunction to block them.

Green Collar’s owners did not return a reporter’s messages for comment this week. But owners Warren Birchard and Jeremiah Rasmussen told The News Tribune last week they were unsure how soon they would open.

“If we got product today, we’ll open tomorrow,” Birchard said July 30.

Berneburg said Green Collar may receive a supply of marijuana by early next week and then open.

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