Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Pierce County Council makes another baffling decision on recreational pot

As a columnist, I should thank my lucky stars for Pierce County Council members.

They’re job security.

Because they’re almost always doing something head-scratching.

The council’s latest foray into absurdity took place Tuesday, when our seven elected officials simultaneously voted to lift the de facto ban on recreational marijuana businesses in unincorporated Pierce County as of July 1 and place an advisory vote on the April 26 ballot asking voters in unincorporated Pierce County if that was the right move.

The decisions followed party lines, save for Lakewood Republican Doug Richardson, who played the swing vote in both.

Perplexed? Me too.

According to council attorney Susan Long, the advisory vote — which will cost taxpayers roughly $425,000 if it’s the lone item on the ballot — will not preserve the ban. It’s little more than an expensive poll.

However, if voters say they don’t want legal pot operations in their backyard, it would give the council the cover it needs to move back in that direction. But Long confirms such a reversal would require another vote, and likely surviving a veto from County Executive Pat McCarthy. That seems like a long shot.

Trotting out a meaningless advisory vote is a sadly predictable move from this council. They’ve done this before. And it’s hard to argue against respecting the will of the people.

Unless it fits your agenda, of course.

According to numbers crunched by area political consultant Ben Anderstone, and verified by the Pierce County Auditor’s office, an analysis of unincorporated Pierce County shows that voters approved I-502 by roughly a 52.3 to 47.6-percent margin.

As you may recall, voters in Pierce County— and across the state — have already voted to legalize recreational marijuana for those 21 and older. They did so, in large part, as an admission that pot prohibition had been a failure and only fostered a dangerous, criminal black market.

It happened in 2012. Initiative 502. It was kind of a big, historic deal. You probably heard about it.

There wasn’t much ambiguity in the decision voters faced.

“This measure would license and regulate marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons over 21; remove state-law criminal and civil penalties for activities that it authorizes; tax marijuana sales; and earmark marijuana-related revenues,” the ballot read.

“Should this measure be enacted into law?”

The answer was clear. Statewide, nearly 56 percent of voters said yes.

In Pierce County, 54 percent of voters did.

And — drumroll, please — according to numbers crunched by area political consultant Ben Anderstone, an analysis of unincorporated Pierce County shows that voters approved I-502 by roughly a 52.3 to 47.6-percent margin. While noting that her office doesn’t maintain “a district, per se for unincorporated Pierce County,” Pierce County Elections Supervisor Shannon Cortez tells me Anderstone’s work is “sound.”

It gets better. The numbers indicate that every County Council district also approved I-502.

In other words, if we want to follow the will of the people, they spoke three years ago — in a high-turnout, presidential-year election. We’ve been ignoring them ever since.

Should an April advisory vote in what will surely be a very low turnout exercise in only unincorporated Pierce County stand as clear enough evidence that voters have changed their mind? That’s the gamble Republicans on the council stand ready to take.

Let’s call it what it is: a rigged, last-ditch effort.

There is some precedent here, albeit with a better fact pattern.

In November, despite the approval of I-502 three years earlier, nearly 62 percent of Federal Way voters decided that regulated recreational pot shops shouldn’t be allowed in city limits. Similar to Pierce County’s upcoming experiment, the poll came in the form of a nonbinding advisory vote. Emboldened by the results, which, to the city’s credit, came from a general election, the Federal Way City Council voted unanimously Dec. 1 to approve just such a ban.

Notice the timing: advisory vote before council action.

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell tells me he believes the results of this year’s election showed voters support legalized marijuana, they just don’t want the storefronts.

That partially undermines the intention of I-502 — getting rid of the black market — but fair enough. Perhaps that’s the exact same message unincorporated Pierce County voters will send.

I’m not going to waste my time or resources waiting for the county to get its act together.

Randy Jones, recreational marijuana license holder in unincorporated Pierce County

The true irony is, if they do, at least some of their perception of what legal marijuana looks like will have likely been colored by the complete failure, to date, to rein in the unregulated medical marijuana market. Current county estimates have the number of unregulated medical pot shops in unincorporated Pierce County in the ballpark of 80. The explosion, for which the Legislature gets most of the blame, is the exact opposite of what the tightly regulated legal market is supposed to be.

Meanwhile, we haven’t yet seen what I-502 intended because our County Council hasn’t allowed it.

Caught in the middle are law-abiding people like Randy Jones, the owner of a state-issued recreational marijuana license for what would be a retail location in unincorporated Pierce County, if such a thing existed.

Already with successful recreational pot stores to his name in Port Orchard and Grays Harbor, Jones tells me he’s spent “a small fortune” hoping Pierce County will come around.

But he’s tired of it.

“I’m already in the process of relocation,” Jones tells me. “I’m not going to waste my time or resources waiting for the county to get its act together.”

Hard to blame him.