Pierce County reconsidering its ban on retail marijuana businesses

Pierce County’s ban on retail marijuana businesses didn’t stop a state-regulated cannabis shop from opening in Parkland three months ago. It also hasn’t slowed the sales of cannabis through so-called “green cross” medical marijuana outlets.

Both of those developments are telling some Pierce County Council members that the ban the council adopted 18 months ago isn’t working.

Three of the council’s seven members have endorsed a measure to repeal the ban on marijuana production, processing and sales.

They say it may be steering business to gray-market shops instead of the tightly regulated stores Washington voters endorsed when they voted to legalize marijuana three years ago.

“We have more and more of these green crosses popping up because we are doing nothing about it,” said Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma. She said voters made clear they want “a regulated industry.”

A council committee voted this week to get rid of the ban, setting up a final vote of the whole council in August.

By then, supporters of the repeal hope they’ll receive more guidance from the state about a new law that is intended to reduce the number of medical marijuana outlets while providing financial incentives to local governments to allow more retail shops.

“To me, this is a simple matter of responding to voters’ wishes,” said Councilman Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor, who brought forward the measure to repeal the ban.

Their discussion at the County Council’s Community Development Committee meeting replayed familiar arguments that led up to council’s adoption of its ban on marijuana operations in November 2013 by a 5-2 vote.

That prohibition bars retail marijuana businesses from opening in unincorporated Pierce County until the federal government removes cannabis from its list of controlled, illegal substances.

“That’s the law of the land no matter what we do,” said Councilman Jim McCune, the only council member at this week’s committee hearing who voted for the ban a year and a half ago.

He said the local government should not be “snubbing our noses” at federal law. He also raised concerns about giving minors more access to cannabis.

McCune, R-Graham, had no allies at the committee meeting. It was led by Tacoma Democrat Rick Talbert. Democrats Ladenburg and Young were there, too.

They made pointed remarks to McCune, a small-government conservative who represents east Pierce County.

“I find it absolutely hypocritical that folks who talk about conservatism, who talk about states rights, are the same ones who want to control certain aspects of our lives,” Talbert said.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy vetoed the pot ban after the council passed it in 2013, but the council proceeded to override her veto.

Several marijuana retailers then challenged the ban in court, several months after current Parkland retailer Tedd Wetherbee challenged another one in Fife. In December, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper ruled that the prohibition did not conflict with the initiative voters passed three years ago to legalize marijuana.

Young’s election to the County Council in November set the stage for the council to reconsider its marijuana policy. He replaced Republican Stan Flemming, who supported the ban.

Wednesday’s hearing drew several advocates and cannabis store owners who support repealing the ban.

One of them was Ashley Swanson, who works for a medical marijuana outlet called Five Points Collective in Tacoma.

“I love what I do,” she said. Her family-owned business hopes to gain a license to continue operating under the state’s new rules for medical marijuana stores.

Wetherbee also attended. He told The News Tribune his business paid about $100,000 in state and local taxes last month.

He said he’s competing against green-cross stores whose owners face less scrutiny than he does and who don’t pay as much in taxes.

“If you lift the ban, more retailers can open where they need to open and we can kill this black market but you can do that without regulation,” he said. “Why would anyone who’s making tens of thousands of dollars a month selling marijuana illegally stop if you don’t make them?”

Pierce County has not enforced its ban on retail marijuana stores since Wetherbee opened the Gallery in late February. Both the business and the local government are waiting to see how the state enforces its new medical marijuana guidelines before moving forward, Wetherbee said.