Editorials

Banning marijuana comes down to 10 votes in local town. Is this smart way to regulate weed?

A customer examines buds of medical marijuana in air-tight candy jars at Triple C Cannabis Club in Tacoma in 2016. After state voters approved Initiative 502 six years ago, Tacoma was among the first Puget Sound governments to establish rules. Others have taken their time, and several have prohibited pot shops altogether. Eatonville now appears headed toward a ban.
A customer examines buds of medical marijuana in air-tight candy jars at Triple C Cannabis Club in Tacoma in 2016. After state voters approved Initiative 502 six years ago, Tacoma was among the first Puget Sound governments to establish rules. Others have taken their time, and several have prohibited pot shops altogether. Eatonville now appears headed toward a ban. News Tribune file photo

Marijuana legalization is one of the most incendiary issues for local governments to handle. Some elected officials try to avoid getting burned by passing it off to voters.

The Federal Way City Council did that in 2015. The Pierce County Council followed in 2016. Now the latest round of political hot potato is under way in the Mount Rainier foothills.

In what’s become a familiar model of dawdle, duck and delegate, the Town Council of Eatonville, currently operating under a temporary marijuana moratorium, asked voters to provide direction with a thumbs up or down on retail pot sales.

Eatonville voters did what they were asked. On Nov. 6, they approved a non-binding measure to ban marijuana businesses by amending the town’s zoning rules.

Just barely. The number of thumbs pointed down on canna-businesses was 556. The number pointed up? 546.

No other ballot measure or candidate race on Pierce County’s general election ballot had a narrower vote count, according to final results certified this week.

That’s hardly a clear mandate upon which a municipality should want to settle an important economic and public health policy.

Ten people? That’s more like happy hour at the Pourhouse Grub & Pub.

It might seem puzzling that the state’s marijuana landscape remains in disarray six years after Washingtonians strongly supported legalization. Initiative 502, which authorized the production, processing and sale of cannabis under tight state controls, won 56 percent of the vote.

But the law doesn’t preclude communities from opting out, and some have spun their wheels since 2012 deciding what to do. Even two of Pierce County’s largest cities struggled to find consensus. It took the Puyallup City Council two years, until December 2014, to pass a permanent anti-marijuana ordinance. Lakewood’s council didn’t adopt an outright ban until this year; previously, it followed a muddled practice of not expressly prohibiting pot shops but not allowing any to open.

At least these cities, and many others in the region, went about it the right way: through thoughtful deliberation by a duly elected body of officials, with informed guidance from staff and planning commission members.

Weighing the pros and cons of marijuana is not easy; more jobs, additional tax revenue and improved access for recreational and medical users must be balanced against legitimate drug abuse concerns, especially potential risks to children. Further complicating matters is that cannabis is listed as a federally controlled substance, and the Trump administration has given mixed signals about enforcing that law.

There are many nuances to marijuana regulation — from buffer areas to zoning districts, from limiting the number of weed outlets to allowing medical marijuana cooperatives. Public officials are best suited to evaluate them all. Isn’t that what we elect them for?

Eatonville now finds itself in a dilemma. While its leaders aren’t obligated to heed the public advisory vote by imposing a blanket ban on pot shops, they’ll face serious blowback if they don’t. That hot potato could turn into a hand grenade.

Let this small town stand as a reminder that every vote counts, and that 10 votes can sometimes have outsized impact.

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