The map for this month’s special election in Pierce County is a holy mess – or, put another way, a holey mess. Auditor Julie Anderson sounds less like an election manager and more like a deli manager when she tells of her “Swiss cheese special.”
Eight versions of the ballot will go out in the mail next Friday, each distributed according to where voters live and whether they have a school bond, fire levy or parks measure in their community. Tens of thousands of households in Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup and other municipalities are in holes that won’t receive ballots.
What makes the April 26 election so complicated is not the usual array of local ballot items. The culprit is the undying question, coming around again like a zombie, that asks county voters if they really, truly want to legalize marijuana, 3 1/2 years after they helped approve Initiative 502. The state measure was favored by 54 percent of Pierce voters.
In essence, they’re being invited to renege on the holistic approach to recreational pot regulation they accepted with I-502, and change it to a parochial expression of NWIMBYism (no weed in my backyard).
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News Tribune
They should reject that invitation. By voting yes, they can help bring some coherence to the South Sound’s mishmash of marijuana rules, which – like Anderson’s map – resembles a slice of Swiss cheese.
Pierce County Advisory Vote No. 1 has the look, feel and cost of a countywide measure, but it isn’t. The council decided to submit it only to voters in unincorporated areas, not cities and towns – an unprecedented move, Anderson says.
This means more than half of county voters won’t get to weigh in on important, long-deferred matters of drug policy. But maybe they shouldn’t feel neglected; after all, the vote will be nonbinding, which means the council can ignore it.
So doesn’t this election amount to little more than a $300,000, taxpayer-funded straw poll, riddled with holes?
Councilwoman Joyce McDonald led the effort to put it on the ballot. The Puyallup Republican personally opposes legalizing the production, processing and retail sale of pot, and her concerns are genuine.
Marijuana is harmful to children and a potential gateway to harder drugs. Left unchecked, it feeds a black market that spawns curbside drug deals, property crime and worse.
That there are an estimated 60 to 80 pot vendors, possibly more, selling with impunity under Green Cross banners in Pierce County shows that bad actors are exploiting Washington’s patchwork system.
A slim majority of the council finally recognized last December that it’s time to allow legal marijuana, coupled with careful zoning and strict enforcement. The ordinance goes into effect July 1.
McDonald was on the losing end of that debate, but she did win the concession of the advisory vote. The question remains: What’s the point?
In an interview last week, she said she believes some citizens have changed their minds since supporting I-502. Unincorporated voters, many of whom she represents, have grown weary of marijuana sellers fleeing to the frontier after many cities banned pot businesses.
If voters say yes to marijuana this month, “then I feel I’ve done my job” and will stand down, McDonald said.
If they say no? She hopes her urban colleagues on the council “will have enough moral fortitude to represent the people in unincorporated Pierce County, too.” In other words, rescind the December ordinance.
We hope voters don’t provide them that excuse.
After three years of dithering, the county has given I-502 a chance to work. Any pot stores that gain licenses in the vast unincorporated areas, from the shadow of Mount Rainier to the tip of the Key Peninsula, will be monitored and inspected by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. They won’t be allowed next to residential areas, parks and schools.
Fewer fly-by-night Green Cross scofflaws are likely to decamp to their next stop as soon as neighbors complain too loudly about smells and traffic.
The holdouts who keep running dispensaries and grow operations outside the system – including those who sell to clients under age 21 – will finally face arrest and prosecution. A new enforcement fund for that purpose will start with $359,000 in county seed money and will be backfilled with marijuana excise-tax revenue.
Advisory votes are crutches, often used by elected officials who want to apply pressure (e.g., last August’s vote on the county’s proposed general services building) or who lack the resolve to make tough decisions.
In the case of marijuana, County Council members already made a decision, and they should stick with it – regardless of how this wholly unnecessary, half-slice vote turns out.