Independence Day comes early this year for some would-be business owners in unincorporated Pierce County. July 1 marks the end of the county’s hard-line stance against the legal sale of recreational marijuana.
Businesses are queuing up for hearings with Planning and Land Services; five are scheduled for early July. It won’t be long before shops can flip on the “open” sign and hoist the green flags. The game is all but won.
But wait. There’s someone on the field. She’s waving her arms and raising red flags. It’s Pierce County Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup. With about two weeks before the county’s ban is lifted, she’s proposed a new one.
On Tuesday McDonald presented the council with an ordinance that sets in motion another potential public hearing to consider amendments that would prohibit the production, processing and retail sales of marijuana.
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This new prohibition would be absolute. The previous “de facto” ban stipulated that businesses could open only in the event marijuana wins federal approval. This new version repeals existing regulations, makes changes in zoning and bars the sale of marijuana — even if the feds eventually remove it from their controlled-substance list.
Cynics might say this last-minute attention-getter looks more like a political maneuver than implementing the will of the people. The public will was made clear in November 2012, when Washington voters approved Initiative 502. More votes were cast in that election than in any other in state history.
But it wasn’t good enough for McDonald and her Republican colleagues at the time. They kept outlawing pot for three years until a council majority finally had a breakthrough last winter and voted to allow carefully licensed retail sales starting this summer.
But hold on again. The council hedged a bit by saying it first wanted to check in with voters — some of them, anyway — in a non-binding advisory measure. This toothless ballot in April was sent only to unincorporated households but still cost taxpayers $425,000. While election results showed pockets of support for marijuana, the final count showed 52.4 percent not in favor of canna-businesses.
The April vote gave expression to some legitimate concerns. People are worried about their neighborhoods looking like a Cheech and Chong fantasy sequence, with unsightly signs and drive-thru smoke shops.
Regulations, funded by new pot revenues, should address these concerns.
So now here we are, less than two weeks before the ban is supposed to lift, and the skunky smell of indecision wafts through the County–City Building. If McDonald wanted to implement her interpretation of the will of the people, why did it take a month and a half to do it?
A skeptic might wonder if the clock was allowed to run down on a game that was already lost. A skeptic might also wonder if this wasn’t something to add to the “I fought the good fight” script if you were, say, running for state representative.
In an interview Friday, McDonald blamed a staff member for not completing a draft of the ordinance sooner. She reiterated that she’s simply following the will of the people, and couldn’t say what the ordinance’s fate might be.
Here’s a prediction: It won’t go anywhere. It could be delayed or killed a number of ways, the most likely being that County Executive Pat McCarthy will veto it. In 2013 McCarthy used her veto power to kill an early anti-marijuana ordinance she said conflicted with state law.
On the off chance this new ordinance does make it to the planning commission, it would still have to return to the County Council, where it would likely not get the five votes needed to override a McCarthy veto.
Talk about reefer madness. McCarthy would be wise to snuff it out now.
It’s not a bad thing to be cautious about a legally-sanctioned drug, but marijuana prohibition is costly in time, resources and money.
And speaking of money, the promise of tax revenues is a compelling argument not to hold this up. Projected state marijuana related revenue for this year is $154 million. In 2017, the number is close to $267 million.
To the County Council we say keep the focus on regulation and quality assurance. Keep pot away from kids. Remove drugged drivers from the road. Take distribution and revenue away from the black-market and drug cartels.
But as for banning marijuana outright, it’s pointless to put more time on the clock.
Businesses are waiting, and frankly, the county could use the cash.