Puyallup leaders are finally set to act on regulations for retail marijuana businesses this week after months considering the city’s options.
The Puyallup City Council plans to vote on a proposed ban on marijuana retailers, producers and processors at its regular meeting Tuesday night. Puyallup is the largest city in Pierce County that has yet to decide how – if at all – to implement state Initiative 502, approved by Washington voters more than two years ago.
A ban on pot operations in the city of more than 37,000 people would conflict with a recommendation from the city’s planning commission early this year.
The course change is intended as a stop-gap solution until some unanswered questions are addressed in the state’s new marijuana market.
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The council will consider two versions of the same ordinance. The first states the city won’t issue business licenses to anyone planning to operate as a marijuana producer, processor or retailer. A second variation proposes to crack down on medical marijuana by adding collective gardens to the list of prohibited operations.
Conflicting pot laws and concerns about I-502’s lack of revenue sharing with local governments prompted the proposal, according to a memo from Steve Kirkelie, Puyallup’s deputy city attorney.
The City Council decided prohibiting marijuana for now is in the city’s “best interests,” Kirkelie wrote in a letter accompanying the ordinance.
The proposal spells out that there will be opportunities to re-evaluate later and possibly allow marijuana businesses in Puyallup if the Legislature “reconciles incongruities” in state law and allows cities to collect a greater share of sales tax revenue, among other fixes.
It also says the regulations could be revisited if the federal government decriminalizes marijuana; the substance is classified federally as a Schedule I narcotic.
The ordinance cites an advisory opinion from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson that determined I-502 doesn’t prevent local governments from banning marijuana businesses. It also refers to a Pierce County Superior Court decision in August that upheld a citywide marijuana ban in Fife.
In a meeting Nov. 25, many City Council members agreed that an ordinance with explicit intent to revisit the issue is better than continuing to drag things out with a series of temporary timeouts.
The latest moratorium expires Dec. 31. It was first approved in August 2013 and extended several times to allow more chance for research and deliberation.
Councilman Tom Swanson said legal questions still need to be answered, especially regulatory discrepancies between unlicensed medical pot outlets and license recreational stores.
“We could keep everybody in the lurch and keep extending moratoriums forever,” Swanson said, or the council could “send a message to the Legislature that we can’t do this until you answer these questions for us.”
Councilman John Hopkins expressed concerns about passing an ordinance prematurely, but acknowledged that he doesn’t think an ongoing series of moratoriums is the best approach.
Councilman John Palmer said the Legislature must address a “very messy system.”
Councilwoman Julie Door agreed but said she’s also concerned about banning a recreational substance that 51 percent of Puyallup voters supported.
“I still struggle with that,” she said, adding that it’s important for city staff stay on top of the issue “so it doesn’t get ignored for centuries.”
The council’s newest proposal is in contrast with a recommendation from the city’s planning commission. In January, the group unanimously recommended that Puyallup allow marijuana operations in some areas of the city.
Commission chairman Steve Hastings said Monday it isn’t unusual for the City Council to vote against recommendations. He noted that the planning commission was tasked with drafting regulations within the framework of I-502, not necessarily deciding whether to follow it.
“From our perspective, our course of action was writing something that fit within the boundaries of the law,” Hastings said. “I think (the council) has a lot more flexibility.”
Other large local municipalities have reacted to marijuana legalization with mixed approaches.
Lakewood and University Place have de facto bans or moratoriums on pot sales for as long as the federal government deems marijuana an illegal drug. The Pierce County Council approved similar regulations, while Tacoma has changed city code to allow pot sales in limited zones.
Although state records show 26 pending applications for retail pot shops in Puyallup, the most the city could have is two. That’s the number of retail licenses the state Liquor Control Board has allocated to Pierce County’s third-largest city.
Mayor John Knutsen stressed that Puyallup is doing the right thing by taking its time.
“We’re in the process of legalizing what was previously an illegal narcotic,” he said at the Nov. 25 meeting. “This is not a simple process. We want to do it right.”