A few bugs in medical marijuana garden plot

Cities, county, dig into muddy details of implementing law




Three weeks after state law began allowing gardens with up to 45 marijuana plants for medical use, Clark County leaders are still struggling with sticky issues associated with the new law.

The Clark County commissioners scheduled a public hearing for 10 a.m. Tuesday. They were expected to either extend their 60-day ban on collective gardens for the county’s unincorporated areas or end the ban, officials said.

Clark County cities such as Vancouver, Camas, Washougal and La Center already have six-month bans in place. Ridgefield, Woodland and Yacolt do not.

Change in state law

Cities rushed to declare temporary bans last month after the state Legislature approved collective gardens. Officials said they needed time to study where the gardens should be placed, how the crop would be distributed and other details, officials said. The state law, which took effect July 22, is at odds with federal law that bans all marijuana use.

State law allows for up to 10 people to grow up to 45 plants in collective gardens.

State law also gives cities and counties the authority to establish zoning regulations for the gardens but not to ban them outright.

“It’s not an issue whether medical marijuana is legal or not,” Washougal Mayor Sean Guard said, pointing to Senate Bill 5073. “The question has to do with the collective farms and what areas they should be in.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire axed portions of proposed legislation allowing dispensaries for medical marijuana. Her decision to allow collective gardens caught many local lawmakers off guard, they said.

“Not only was there little warning, but also little direction,” WSU Vancouver sociology professor Clayton Mosher wrote in an email. He added, “This really is a political hot potato, and one might argue that in some respects, the state (and particularly Governor Gregoire) punted on this one.”

Medical marijuana advocates would have preferred that Gregoire allow regulated dispensaries.

Collective gardens are a worthwhile and necessary option for medicinal users who do not grow their own product, advocates say.

But the gardens are not the best-case solution because people belonging to the garden often don’t know everyone else involved, raising questions about how much their partners are involved and whether they are selling their marijuana on the side.

“Collective gardens are a creative stopgap measure,” said Keith Stroup, legal counsel and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Temporary bans do not mean “discretion is unlimited” with regards to zoning laws nor do they allow cities to use such laws as a form of long-term prohibition, Stroup added.

The best-case scenario, according to Stroup, would be the legalization and regulation of medical marijuana.

That option is not on the table.

For the time being, leaders like Guard and others are deciding what steps to take, if any.

Battle Ground action

The Battle Ground City Council asked its staff Monday night to draft a resolution to extend the city’s 60-day ban on medical marijuana gardens to six months.

Individuals have grown medical marijuana in Battle Ground homes for years, said Robert Maul, the city’s community development director. But the prospect of gardens raises potential nuisance concerns regarding the area’s smell, noise levels and the potential for added traffic.

“The city of Battle Ground does not have a groundswell of interest in terms of people wanting to set up commercial (medical marijuana) operations,” Maul said. Even so, the zoning issues need to be addressed because the city does not “want to put ourselves in an awkward situation with the federal government,” which bans marijuana, he added.

Camas and Washougal each passed temporary bans July 16.

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said his city council took “the cautionary approach” that other cities did. He mentioned that the thought of something being legal in his town that was illegal federally gave him pause.

Federal sanctions for collective gardens appear unlikely based on the experiences of other states, such as Colorado, that have them, Stroup said.

“The federal government hasn’t taken any steps to prosecute or indict them and I don’t think they will,” Stroup said.

Cities can act before the six-month temporary bans run their course. Washougal will address the zoning issues associated with gardens as soon as officials have had enough time to properly research them, Guard said.

“We don’t want to come up with something so vastly different that it confuses the public or anyone else who goes into that business,” Guard said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; ray.legendre@columbian.com.