Politics & Government

First state-licensed pot store in unincorporated area sues Pierce County

The first state-licensed pot store in unincorporated Pierce County filed suit against the county Thursday, contending that the county’s de facto ban on marijuana businesses violates state law.

The store’s lawsuit was filed the same day that the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington announced it will back three state-licensed marijuana business owners who have moved to join a legal challenge against a pot ban in Fife.

In the lawsuit against the county, Green Collar LLC, in Parkland, argues enforcement of state law under voter-approved Initiative 502 takes precedence over the federal prohibition against marijuana. The lawsuit seeks to block the county from prohibiting Green Collar from operating.

Green Collar, at 10422 Pacific Ave. S., could open as soon as next week. Pierce County officials say they could force the retail operation to close if it opens, though any shutdown wouldn’t happen immediately.

Tacoma lawyer Jay Berneburg filed the lawsuit Thursday in Pierce County Superior Court on behalf of Green Collar.

Stewart Estes, a Seattle lawyer representing Pierce County on its marijuana ordinance, could not be reached for comment.

County Council Chairman Dan Roach said Thursday he wasn’t surprised to hear of the lawsuit. He said the question of federal versus state regulation of marijuana is unresolved for now.

“I think everyone knows throughout the state that this will be decided in the courts,” said Roach, who hadn’t seen the lawsuit.

Pierce County notified the owners of Green Collar last week that the store doesn’t comply with county regulations. The rules adopted by the County Council late last year stipulate that the county won’t approve an application for a marijuana-licensed business until Congress removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances.

The county says Green Collar also violates county regulations because it’s located in a building with a restaurant and is not a stand-alone business.

Green Collar’s claim says state law preempts any conflicting local law, such as Pierce County’s.

The lawsuit cites the U.S. Department of Justice’s Cole memo from August 2013 as supporting state regulation of marijuana. The memo contradicts the “notion that federal law must change before Washington State marijuana laws (as amended by Initiative 502) can take effect and be implemented,” court documents state.

The federal memo says a “robust” state regulatory system may address federal marijuana priorities, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also cites the memo as saying “enforcement of state law by state and local law enforcement and regulatory bodies should remain the primary means of addressing marijuana-related activity.”

Voters approved I-502, legalizing recreational cannabis, in 2012.

The lawsuit says the county is violating state law by preventing Green Collar from applying for and obtaining permits to operate.

Green Collar’s lawsuit adds to what has become a multi-front legal showdown over state and federal law.

Lawyers already have filed lawsuits against the cities of Fife and Wenatchee, challenging pot bans adopted by those cities.

Fife City Attorney Loren Combs said Wednesday the city will argue that federal drug law trumps I-502 — the first time a city has vowed to use the federal pre-emption defense. The state Attorney General’s Office announced Wednesday it will “vigorously” fight Fife’s claim.

In a news release Thursday, the ACLU of Washington announced it will back three state-licensed marijuana business owners who have moved to intervene in the legal challenge against Fife.

“State and federal laws do not have to be the same,” Alison Holcomb, regional criminal justice director for ACLU, said in the release. “I-502 is designed to protect the health and welfare of our state’s residents and maintains Washington’s traditional role as partner with the federal government. Our state’s law is consistent with federal enforcement priorities.”

Staff writer Kari Plog contributed to this report.