Recreational marijuana business owners hoping to open legally in the unincorporated areas of Pierce County remain in limbo after the County Council gave mixed signals on recreational marijuana last month.
The council narrowly voted to make it legal for state licensed recreational marijuana businesses to operate in the unincorporated parts of the county beginning July 1.
But that legalization came with a caveat of sorts: A last-minute amendment added by the council’s four Republicans authorizing an April special election to ask voters their opinion on allowing the production, processing and sale of marijuana.
Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, proposed the non-binding vote for voters in unincorporated Pierce County. Council Republicans said the outcome will tell them whether they should restore the de-facto ban that Pierce County had in place since late 2013.
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If voters say “no” to pot, McDonald has promised to bring legislation to the council to reinstate the ban before it is lifted July 1.
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, who vetoed the council’s 2013 ban, wouldn’t say this week what she would do if the council acts to reinstate it. The council overrode her veto two years ago, but it is unclear whether it has the votes to do so again.
“Part of it will depend on the discussion with the council,” McCarthy said of how she would handle a new ban.
An advisory election is required that has no authority, but costs as much as hiring four sheriff’s deputies who could actually enforce marijuana regulations.
Pat McCarthy, Pierce County executive
Despite criticism by council Democrats who believe the April vote is a waste of taxpayer money, McDonald sees the vote as an end to the council’s on-going marijuana debate.
“I think this should close the door for all of the council members who continue to bring this issue up,” McDonald said in an interview earlier this month.
CRITICISM BEYOND COUNCIL CHAMBERS
After the council voted to lift the pot ban last month, people started calling county planners with questions. Melanie Halsan, special adviser to the county planning director, found it difficult to give a clear answer.
“I am unsure of my footing and that’s not a good place to be,” she said earlier this month.
There are four businesses in various stages of the county’s permitting process, Halsan said. Two are operating — The Green Collar Cannabis and The Gallery — and two said they would wait until the ban is gone.
“The politicians are playing down in the muck and the mire and messing with people,” said attorney Jay Berneburg, who represents the owners of The Green Collar, which is on Pacific Avenue South in unincorporated Pierce County.
Berneburg’s clients opened in August. They have a state license and have met county requirements to operate — except for a conditional-use permit, Berneburg said.
To be issued a conditional-use permit before July 1, business owners must show marijuana is no longer considered an illegal drug by the federal government. After July 1, that requirement won’t apply.
The business applied for a permit in October. The application was denied Thursday by County Hearing Examiner Stephen Causseaux Jr.
The denial came a week after Hearing Examiner Keith Black denied The Gallery’s application, but only after noting that the business had improved the look of the neighborhood and hadn’t drawn complaints from nearby businesses.
The politicians are playing down in the muck and the mire and messing with people.
Jay Berneburg, attorney representing recreational marijuana business owners
Both examiners said their hands were tied by current law that prohibits the businesses for a few more months. The shops plan to appeal, hoping to draw out the process until July 1 when the ban is lifted.
Owners Tedd Wetherbee and Mike Henery hoped the County Council would erase their troubles in December by removing the ban. Instead the council only complicated matters, Wetherbee said.
“It’s totally detrimental to my business,” he said. “It makes me have to wait technically until April to see if my business is going to be viable in the county.”
Wetherbee has formed the political action committee The Alliance to Protect I-502 to raise awareness about the April 26 vote. His business has given $15,000 to the committee, according to state Public Disclosure Commission filings.
Wetherbee and Henery face additional complications with a second store they want to open on state Route 7 near Spanaway.
The council approved a 1,000 foot buffer at the request of Councilman Jim McCune, R-Graham, that restricts marijuana operations along a 30-mile section of Route 7 designated as a scenic and recreational highway.
McCune argued the area has a high crime rate and worries marijuana-related businesses would exacerbate it.
Wetherbee argued McCune’s buffer hurts small business and contradicts action he took in 2009 as a state representative. While in the House, McCune tried to strip the scenic designation from one 4-mile stretch of the highway.
At the time, McCune argued the designation hurt small business because owners couldn’t advertise with signs.
“It wasn’t really about getting rid of the scenic route or anything like that,” McCune said in a phone interview this week. “I was fighting for the business rights.”
Wetherbee and Henery have filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court challenging the buffer.
COST TO TAXPAYERS
County Councilman Derek Young was the author of the proposal to lift the county’s marijuana ban. He’s not happy with how it was amended to add an election.
“This is likely to get very expensive for almost zero gain,” the Gig Harbor Democrat said.
County Auditor Julie Anderson says her budget, which was already set before the council took its pot vote in December, does not have the $425,000 needed to hold the advisory vote.
I think this should close the door for all of the council members who continue to bring this issue up.
Joyce McDonald, Pierce County Councilwoman, R-Puyallup
Anderson estimates she will need to ask the council for $300,000 more to run the special election.
“I think it would be patently unfair to expect the Auditor’s Office to pay for a political debate that is the sole responsibility of the County Council,” she said.
Executive McCarthy expressed her frustration over the price tag for the non-binding vote and the confusion over what’s happening to the ban by taking a pass on the council’s new marijuana ordinance this month.
In a Jan. 6 letter to the council, McCarthy said she would not sign or veto the ordinance. Saying the amended ordinance was “flawed,” McCarthy determined sending it back with a veto “would accomplish nothing.”
“An advisory election is required that has no authority, but costs as much as hiring four Sheriff’s deputies who could actually enforce marijuana regulations,” McCarthy wrote.
McDonald said she will continue to oppose recreational marijuana, no matter the outcome of the election. But if voters say yes to allowing recreational pot businesses, she said she won’t try to restore the ban.