The state Attorney General’s Office moved Thursday to intervene in marijuana lawsuits filed against two Washington cities, including Fife.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the state wants to defend I-502, the initiative that legalized recreational marijuana, in the face of bans by Fife and Wenatchee.
“We have a clear interest in protecting the will of the voters,” he told reporters on a conference call Thursday
. The Fife ordinance, passed earlier this month, establishes an outright ban on marijuana sales. .
Wenatchee adopted a policy that says business-license applicants must comply with federal law. Since U.S. government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, the policy in the central Washington city effectively bans retail pot sales and other operations until federal law is changed.
Businesses in both cities that applied for licenses have sued in Pierce and Chelan county superior courts, arguing that the local prohibition of marijuana conflicts with state law.
The Attorney General’s Office is prepared to argue that federal law does not preempt the state’s new regulatory system, but noted in a news release that it isn’t intervening on behalf of any parties involved in litigation.
“The AGO is intervening to defend Initiative 502, not to support the plaintiffs’ or cities’ positions,” the release states.
By becoming a party to the lawsuits, state lawyers would participate in briefings, hearings and any trial that may follow.
State law authorizes the attorney general to intervene in lawsuits to protect citizens’ interests.
Ferguson stressed that his intent to uphold the will of Washington voters is consistent with an opinion he issued earlier this year that said I-502 doesn’t prevent local governments from banning marijuana operations.
He said the goal is “not to focus on policy implementation,” but rather to ensure accurate interpretation of the law to protect the regulatory system that I-502 created.
Wenatchee relied on the attorney general’s opinion in its response to litigation, while Fife has yet to respond to its legal challenge.
Fife City Attorney Loren Combs couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
The Fife City Council voted 5-2 on July 8 to prohibit all pot retailers, producers or processors from operating within the limits of the north Pierce County city of about 9,200 residents
Tedd Wetherbee – who’s secured two lottery slots for retail licenses and intends to open pot stores in Gig Harbor and Fife – sent the city a letter prior to its vote warning that “the moment (council members) pass this ban we will file this suit.”
The complaint filed July 15 – which will be consolidated with another similar lawsuit that was filed simultaneously by MMH, LLC – states that the city’s ordinance is inconsistent with state law and wrongfully blocks Wetherbee’s legal business. A court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 29.
Attorney Mark Nelson, who represents the plaintiffs challenging Fife, said it’s good that the state wants to “defend I-502 and ensure that it is properly interpreted.”
However, Nelson disagrees with Ferguson’s opinion that I-502 doesn’t prevent cities from banning pot businesses.
“That is exactly what we’re challenging,” he told The News Tribune on Thursday. “The AG issued an opinion in January that cities and counties throughout the state took as law, but in fact the AG opinion is not law.”
Ferguson noted in Thursday’s conference call that, while infrequent, it’s not unusual for the state to intervene in litigation.
A judge could decide in a week or two whether to allow state intervention.
As local governments continue to navigate the uncharted legal territory of marijuana sales, Ferguson said similar litigation filed against other local governments could be scrutinized for possible intervention.
“I don’t want to prejudge those,” he said, but if future lawsuits involved the same issues “we would want to have our voice heard in whatever jurisdiction and whatever court is hearing those cases.”