Politics & Government

Bill targeting a Tri-Cities pot shop could cost taxpayers $9 million

A bill to make it easier to close cannabis shops and harder to open them would add about $9 million in new costs to the state’s budget, including about $6.5 million to defend lawsuits from hundreds of businesses that would be forced to move or close.
A bill to make it easier to close cannabis shops and harder to open them would add about $9 million in new costs to the state’s budget, including about $6.5 million to defend lawsuits from hundreds of businesses that would be forced to move or close. AP

The cost of a bill to make it harder to open — and easier to close — cannabis shops has shot up. Way up.

A new estimate pegs the cost of a marijuana siting bill sponsored by Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, at $9 million during the 2020-21 biennium.

State officials initially estimated it would cost about $2.6 million to enforce provisions in House Bill 1003.

The bill adds unlicensed daycares, playgrounds and school bus stops to the list of facilities that trigger the 1,000-foot buffer zone around stores selling cannabis.

But a revised fiscal note posted last week estimates it will cost another $6.5 million to defend the state from the hundreds of lawsuits that current shop owners would likely file if they’re forced to close or move in the first biennium alone.

Klippert’s new rules wouldn’t merely add on the kinds of amenities that trigger the 1,000-foot exclusion rule.

It prohibits the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board from renewing licenses for businesses within 1,000 feet of such facilities, even if they complied with the rules that existed at the time they received their initial licenses.

Store proposed near West Richland

The bill is inspired by the proposed Nirvana Cannabis Co. shop in an unincorporated sliver of Benton County surrounded by the city of West Richland.

The businesses secured a state license but Klippert has vowed to fight it, noting it is near a preschool, bus stops and a church.

No pot near tots
A sign objecting to The Garden LLC’s plan to move Nirvana Cannabis Co. to commercial property encircled by West Richland alerts drivers on Kennedy Road. The property meets the legal requirements for a cannabis business but neighbors say it poses a traffic and safety problem. Wendy Culverwell Tri-City Herald

But state officials fear his new rules would force many of the 2,000 existing cannabis shops to close or relocate. It expects many will fight being uprooted by after-the-fact rules.

According to the fiscal notes prepared for the Liquor and Cannabis Board and for the state Attorney General’s Office, which represents the agency in legal matters, 35 percent of retail shops would be affected in the first year, or 688 operating shops..

Another 30 percent of all shops could be impacted in subsequent years.

The number would not drop since day cares, playgrounds and bus stops can pop up without warning, triggering the buffer zone rules.

Costly appeals expected

State officials project half the 688 shops affected in the first year would appeal the decision. A sizable number would proceed to court, and then through the legal appeals process.

Each administrative case takes about 55 hours of attorney time. Appeals take about 80 hours.

The Attorney General’s office would have to add more than 20 employees in the first year alone.

It would cost $2.8 million in the first year, rising to $3.4 million in 2020 and comparable amounts in subsequent years, excluding raises.

The AG’s office would bill the liquor and cannabis board. The board previously said it would have to add more investigators to keep up with complaints.

The added workload would include an estimated 393 complaints related to the expanded marijuana siting rules.

‘Brushed it off’

The cannabis industry isn’t taking Klippert’s siting bill seriously.

“We just brushed it off,” said Jeremy Moberg, the Okanogan County-based president and founder of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association.

Moberg said he’s more concerned about a separate cannabis bill, H.B. 1289, which concerns out-of-state funding and unlimited retail ownership, which he said threatens growers.

Klippert’s siting bill is a distraction from reaching a legislative fix to remove the bans and moratoriums that prevent businesses from operating across the state, including in most of the Tri-Cities, he said.

“There is no way that it is going anywhere, not with the Democrats in charge,” he said.

The Washington CannaBusiness Association opposes expanding what it says are already restrictive siting rules.

“(O)ur members work hard to appropriately site their production and processing facilities, as well as retail locations,” said spokesman Aaron Pickus.

The siting bill is pending in the House Commerce & Gaming Committee. The committee held a hearing on the second day of the 2019 session. It was scheduled to hear it again in an executive session last week but took no action.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.