Judge upholds Pierce County’s retail pot ban

Pierce County’s ban on retail marijuana shops survived a court challenge Monday, but an appeal to higher courts looms as the statewide weed wars continue.

Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper sided with lawyers for Pierce County and the state, echoing a ruling he made earlier this year tied to a similar ban in the city of Fife. Statewide, it’s the fifth court ruling since August upholding bans by local governments.

“The county’s ban does not conflict with 502,” Culpepper said, referring to the statewide initiative approved by voters in 2012 that created a regulatory system for the sale and purchase of recreational marijuana.

Attorneys for a group of licensed marijuana retailers and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the county’s ban conflicts with the provisions of I-502. The ban, passed by the county council in 2013, cites federal law and prohibits retail marijuana licensing in the county until federal authorities remove marijuana from a list of illegal controlled substances.

The county moved for summary judgment (a resolution without a trial), which Culpepper granted.

The lead plaintiff, Green Collar LLC, received a state license allowing it to open a marijuana business in the county despite the ban.

Attorney Jay Berneburg, representing Green Collar, said the county’s ban defied the will of the voters. Initiative 502 passed with 55.7 percent of the statewide vote, and 54 percent of the vote in Pierce County.

Said Berneburg, “183,000 people in Pierce County said this is what we want, and a number of elected officials said we don’t care what you want — and they set about finding excuses.”

State attorneys, echoing an opinion issued earlier this year by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, argued that the language of 502 does not prevent cities and counties from banning marijuana businesses.

Attorney Sal Mungia, representing the ACLU, said the question amounted to reading voter intent.

“Did voters mean to prohibit marijuana sales or allow it?” he asked.

Culpepper declined to frame his ruling on those terms and skirted a larger question that hangs over the debate: whether federal laws that make marijuana illegal trump state laws that do the opposite. He also noted that county consumers are able to buy legal marijuana within Tacoma city limits, where no ban exists.

Culpepper’s ruling ends the debate for the moment, but after Monday’s hearing, Berneburg said an appeal to higher courts is inevitable. He also suggested that state lawmakers might examine recreational marijuana laws more closely in the upcoming legislative session.