Recreational pot coming back to Pierce County ballot in 2016

Voters in unincorporated Pierce County will be asked to weigh in on recreational marijuana again, 3  1/2 years after Washington voters approved Initiative 502 legalizing recreational cannabis.

In a 4-3 decision Tuesday, the Pierce County Council voted to put a measure on the April 26 ballot asking voters in unincorporated Pierce County to decide whether the sale, processing and production of recreational marijuana should be allowed.

Voters in Pierce County cities and towns will not cast ballots.

Regardless of how the vote goes, the county’s de facto ban on recreational marijuana is now scheduled to end on July 1. That’s because the council, in another 4-3 vote Tuesday, agreed to detach its marijuana rules from federal law that includes pot on the list of banned, controlled substances.

Councilman Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, was the swing vote in both decisions.

Last month, Richardson proposed creating a fund in the 2016 county budget to pay for marijuana enforcement. The fund would be used to enforce a July 1 deadline for businesses to either comply with local laws or shut down.

The fund relies on future collection of state marijuana excise taxes. But for Pierce County to collect the tax, county code must be changed to allow state-licensed marijuana businesses to operate here.

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald voted Tuesday against removing the marijuana ban and instead proposed the advisory vote.

“It’s important for me to get the voice of the people in unincorporated Pierce County, to see how they feel about this,” McDonald said. “Let the people who will be affected have the opportunity to have their voices heard.”

Richardson agreed. For more than two years he has staunchly supported shutting down illegal medical marijuana dispensaries in the county. He estimated there are more than 80.

“Unincorporated Pierce County has been the wild wild west,” he said. “It’s been a complete disregard for the law, and I for one am not real pleased about that.”

While Richardson broke from his fellow Republicans in his support of ending the marijuana ban, he voted along party lines to call for the advisory ballot.

“I don’t want to give the appearance that I’m trying to dictate to other areas of Pierce County,” he said.

Republicans Jim McCune, Dan Roach and McDonald joined Richardson in supporting that amendment.

Democrats Connie Ladenburg, Rick Talbert and Derek Young opposed holding another election and favored ending the marijuana ban.

Young noted that voters in every council district approved Initiative 502 in 2012, including rural areas that passed it 52 to 48 percent.

“If you look at the map, there’s very few precincts where this wasn’t popular,” he said.

Young called the public vote “an expensive poll.”

“We’ve already decided this, but I guess we’ll send it back to the voters to hear from them again,” he said.

Supporters of the amendment noted that local voters may have changed their minds in the last three years as they have watched legalized marijuana take hold around Washington. In Federal Way, for example, more than 60 percent of voters casting ballots in November said they don’t want recreational marijuana, despite the 53 percent who voted for I-502.

Pierce County has 210,361 registered voters in unincorporated areas, Auditor Julie Anderson said in an email Tuesday. She estimated the county will have to pay $425,000 for a special election in April, assuming there’s nothing else on the ballot.

“We'd need the Council to provide a supplemental appropriation,” Anderson said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley