Federal Way voters oppose pot retailers in city despite previous support of I-502

Three years after state voters legalized recreational marijuana, a Washington city this week returned to voters with a marijuana measure of its own.

The results, at least at face value, seem to contradict the way they voted on state Initiative 502 in 2012.

An overwhelming majority of Federal Way voters are opposed to allowing pot retailers in the South King County city, the latest results of the local election showed Thursday.

The advisory vote on Tuesday’s ballot asked voters if they would welcome marijuana-related businesses that were authorized by I-502.

It appears to be the first time a Washington city or town has asked its voters to weigh in again on marijuana, officials with the Secretary of State’s office said.

Supporters of retail pot in Federal Way say the City Council kept extending moratoriums against the will of 63.5 percent of King County voters who approved I-502, “pushing sales to nearby cities, or to the black market,” according to the voter’s guide.

Opponents say Federal Way is a family-friendly city, not a place for pot shops. They contend marijuana retailers would make it too easy for teens to get and “sends the message that drugs are the new norm.”

As of Thursday’s count, nearly 62 percent of voters were saying “no” to the measure, despite a majority of voters who helped pass I-502 just three years ago.

At that time, 53 percent of Federal Way voters supported the statewide initiative, according to Secretary of State data.

That measure was on the ballot during a higher-profile presidential election. Those typically see higher turnout than off-year elections, which historically attract a narrower range of voters.

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said Thursday that the two measures aren’t identical, and placing the advisory vote on the ballot was “not at all redundant.”

Ferrell said I-502 clearly aimed to decriminalize marijuana, which he believes residents supported at the time.

But he said it was unclear until this week whether those same voters wanted pot retailers in Federal Way and what role City Hall should play in regulating the new businesses, if at all.

The nonbinding vote merely gauges opinion in the city of 93,000 people. The City Council still must take action on the issue. Ferrell said it will be on the Dec. 1 council agenda, likely in the form of a proposed ban.

While the advisory vote doesn’t have legal force, Ferrell said the results indicate what’s likely to come.

“We want to make sure policy is a reflection of the majority of our voters,” Ferrell said. “We take that very seriously.”

The issue has been on Federal Way’s radar since I-502 passed.

The first moratorium was approved in November 2013. It was extended again in October 2014 and once more in April this year, when the issue of an advisory vote was introduced and approved.

At least one city in Pierce County explored a similar approach as Federal Way, but never took it to a public vote.

Gig Harbor first discussed a ballot measure in 2014, well into the city’s extensive discussions about how — if at all — to implement I-502.

Lindsey Sehmel, the city’s senior planner, said the Gig Harbor City Council at that time opted to extend a moratorium instead of directing staff to draft a ballot measure.

A year later, staff drafted a resolution that would have authorized an advisory vote. It was brought to the City Council as one of three options for dealing with marijuana businesses — regulating them, banning them or asking voters their preference.

Council members ultimately decided in August to ban all marijuana-related operations in Gig Harbor, without putting the issue on the ballot.

Mark Cooke is a policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the driving forces behind I-502.

He said local moratoriums and bans are more important than advisory votes, since the measures don’t carry legal consequences.

Although he wouldn’t comment on Federal Way’s ballot measure, he said the ACLU supports “full and fair implementation of I-502.”

“The voters of Washington state have spoken clearly that they want a new approach to marijuana policy in this state,” Cooke said. “We try to keep it at the state-level perspective.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682