Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Is Pierce County Council poised to finally lift ban on recreational pot?

The Pierce County Council is gearing up to talk about legal marijuana.

Again.

In all likelihood, the natural reaction to this development is a skeptical eye roll followed by some muttering and the shaking of one’s head.

Or at least that’s probably the reaction of anyone who believes the will of Pierce County voters — which the council purports to respect — has been frustratingly ignored on this issue.

As you may recall, voters across the state approved Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, back in 2012. Here in Pierce County, the effort won a solid 54 percent of the vote.

But thanks to the County Council — and the de-facto ban on recreational pot shops it enacted a year after I-502’s passage — our county hasn’t enjoyed all the benefits.

Specifically, we don’t have licensed stores selling the stuff in any area beyond city limits.

Many would say that defeats I-502’s purpose. After all, it’s hard to eradicate the black market without providing opportunities for people to legally purchase pot.

Instead, our elected county lawmakers have treated recreational marijuana with a moral superiority that would make Mike Huckabee proud.

I-502 didn’t preempt local control, they argue.

Whether people wanted legal pot and wanted their local jurisdictions to give up control of the matter are separate issues, they maintain. They’re just making the pragmatic local decisions they were elected to make, in other words.

“You can get it almost anywhere,” Council Chair Dan Roach tells me of legal pot.

“Just not here.”

Exactly.

If that’s to change, we may look back to this past week as the starting point. That’s when a bill that would finally allow state-licensed pot shops in Pierce County, sponsored by Gig Harbor Democrat Derek Young, made its way through the council’s community development committee. It appears headed for full council consideration later this month.

“I actually think we have a good shot at passing this,” Young told me, in all apparent seriousness.

Say what now?

You’ll have to forgive the skepticism, but the council’s track record on pot doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of optimism.

Still, Young says what’s different this time is state legislators in Olympia actually took meaningful action last session, crafting legislation that will eventually put the hazy, unregulated medical pot market on par with the licensed and regulated recreational market.

It created a path for reining in an out-of-control medical pot landscape that has seen a green cross (or three) pop up in what feels like every strip mall in the county.

And for at least one member of the council — which is all it will take to turn the tide — that may make all the difference.

While Doug Richardson has mostly voted with his fellow Republicans on recreational pot, his reasoning has been slightly different. Richardson’s objection has been rooted in a desire to stamp out the Wild West medical marijuana green rush before allowing even more pot into the county.

Young tells me that his bill, in addition to getting Pierce County its cut of legal weed tax dollars, would help close the estimated 84 unlicensed medical pot shops in the unincorporated areas, which the county is working to do anyway.

In their place would be fewer than a dozen medical marijuana stores. That’s the number of existing medical storefronts the county figures could be eligible to win state licenses.

So, will the long-sought action from state lawmakers to regulate medical marijuana be enough to sway Richardson?

“I’m open-minded. I’ll put it like that,” Richardson tells me, saying his decision will come down to whether he believes there’s a firm, “aggressive” enforcement plan in place to shut down unlicensed dispensaries.

“The key is, if (an enforcement plan is in place), then we’d go from over 80 (dispensaries) in the county down to no more than a dozen retail facilities,” he says.

The former Lakewood mayor wouldn’t commit to a vote at this point, but even Roach admits the legal pot dynamic on the council may well have shifted.

“As far as me personally, nothing has changed. My vote’s going to stay the same. … If I had my druthers, I’d say keep what we’ve got now,” Roach tells me. “But we’re a council of seven people, and the majority’s going to rule. I don’t win very battle, and I’m OK with that.”

During a recent phone conversation, Young explained that he started working on the bill shortly after an elaborate, 798-plant pot grow was discovered in his district back in February. It was one of the largest Pierce County pot busts in two decades, and it happened next door to a day care.

“Frankly, I was mad,” Young told me, arguing that by continuing its ban on licensed recreational pot stores the county is only encouraging black market activity.

“Two days later I had something drafted,” he continued. “I just thought that if someone gets hurt because we have taken some action, I’m going to be really upset.”

If action is ever going to happen, it sure feels like now’s the time.

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