The Pierce County Council has now been advised by the people of unincorporated Pierce County on the legal, regulated sale of marijuana to adults.
But what to make of that expensive advice – it cost $425,000 to put the question to a handful of voters, again – is far from clear.
As you’ll recall, late last year four of the seven members of the council – Democrats Connie Ladenburg, Rick Talbert, Derek Young and Republican Doug Richardson – voted to lift the de facto ban on legal pot sales in the unincorporated parts of Pierce County, effective July 1.
The vote made sense, given the fact that unincorporated Pierce County voters gave Initiative 502 – legalizing the regulated sale of recreational marijuana to adults – 52 percent approval back in 2012 (it passed countywide at 54 percent). And, as Richardson has urged, tax revenue from regulated sales could be used to help snuff out the alarming number of unregulated “medical” marijuana dispensaries that flourished under a lack of guidance from the Legislature, until last year when lawmakers in Olympia finally got their act together.
But at the same time as the council lifted the ban, four of the seven members of the council – Richardson and his Republican colleagues, Joyce McDonald, Dan Roach and Jim McCune – voted to place the question of whether pot sales should be legal in unincorporated Pierce County to voters in only these areas.
This decision made less sense, given the fact it was premised on the idea that voters in these areas should be allowed to weigh in on the matter, and they already did, in a high-turnout presidential election year. That vote, apparently, didn’t matter.
The results of the nonbinding advisory vote ordered by the council started coming in last week. As of this writing, 47.6 percent of unincorporated voters had said regulated marijuana sales to adults should be legal, while 52.4 said it shouldn’t be.
But within those numbers are some interesting, and potentially influential, takeaways.
First, the obvious: Only about 65,000 unincorporated Pierce County residents were bothered to cast a ballot, making for a predictably dismal turnout of just over 30 percent. That’s a far cry from 2012’s turnout for I-502 vote; in fact, it’s less than half. Not exactly a mandate.
If you combined the 2012 ballots cast on I-502 and April’s advisory vote on the same issue, legalized retail marijuana would pass. (It’s also nearly certain it would have passed if it was a vote of the entire county, and not just the unincorporated areas.)
Secondly, according to Ben Anderstone, a local political consultant who – full disclosure – worked for the “yes” campaign on the advisory vote, the results for legalized marijuana supporters were far better than many expected.
As a comparison, Anderstone looked at Federal Way, where the difference between the city’s vote on I-502 and a 2015 advisory vote resulted in what he describes as a 14 percent “cliff dive” of support. The advisory vote had only 38.6 percent of voters in favor of marijuana sales.
Given that I-502 had weaker support in unincorporated Pierce County than it did in Federal Way, the number of folks who could reliably be expected to vote “yes” votes in April’s election figured to be about 37 percent, Anderstone says. Some worried it could be lower.
In this light, the 47.6 percent support legal marijuana is receiving in unincorporated Pierce County far exceeded expectations.
“Considering turnout was less than half that when I-502 was passed, it’s likely that this measure would have done nearly as well as I-502 in a presidential election,” Anderstone says. “That’s very significant. … To me this shows that when Pierce County voters voted for I-502, they meant it.”
Even more interesting is how the advisory vote fared in each council district. Anderstone’s tabulations show it narrowly lost in both Talbert’s and Young’s, and failed more convincingly in McDonald’s, Roach’s and McCune’s, which had by far the most unincorporated voters. It passed in Ladenburg’s, where there are fewer than 100 voters in unincorporated areas and, as of this writing, only 26 cast a vote.
Besides Ladenburg’s, the advisory vote received its strongest support in Doug Richardson’s district, where 53.9 percent of voters approved it. That’s less than a one point drop from the support I-502 received in the unincorporated areas of Richardson’s territory in 2012, when it received 54.9 percent support.
Number crunching aside, the Pierce County advisory vote sets the stage for what seemed inevitable all along: Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, who’s been unrelenting in waging a war against weed, moving to restore Pierce County’s ban on legal marijuana sales.
“I believe I will have a 4-0 vote to continue the ban, that’s my hope,” McDonald told The News Tribune on election night, while cautioning against premature declarations of victory at that stage in the game.
More than a week later, it’s now abundantly clear where the handful of voters who participated in this exercise in limited democracy stand. The ball is in McDonald’s court.
But perhaps the most important question is this: Will Richardson – the only member of the council who’s shown flexibility on the issue – stand with the low-turnout advisory vote whole, or with the people of his district, who have now twice voted in favor of legal marijuana?
Did I mention it’s an election year?