Commissioners prohibit pot-growing facilities

Moratorium will give county time to address new law

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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A new state law going into effect next week may allow gardens with up to 45 marijuana plants for medical use, but the Clark County commissioners aren’t going to allow it.

At least not right away.

The commissioners on Tuesday unanimously passed an emergency land-use and zoning resolution temporarily prohibiting facilities used to grow, produce, process or dispense marijuana. The six-month moratorium will give county officials a chance to discuss and establish zoning laws and regulations for such facilities, said Axel Swanson, senior policy analyst for the commissioners.

“It wasn’t about the board taking a position about the merits of medical marijuana,” he said. “It was about the board making sure there was a proper public process before allowing this activity in the county.”

Current state law says patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses cannot be found guilty of a crime under state law for their possession and limited use of marijuana. The law also protects designated providers and health care professionals from prosecution.

Federal law, however, does not recognize the difference between medical and recreational use of marijuana and deems its use, possession and distribution illegal.

On April 29, Gov. Chris Gregoire approved several sections of Senate Bill 5073, which provides additional state law protections for the use of medical marijuana. The approved portions of the law go into effect July 22.

‘Collective garden’

Under the new law, up to 10 qualifying patients may create and maintain a “collective garden” for producing, processing, transporting and delivering cannabis for medical use. The garden cannot have more 15 plants per patient, up to a total of 45 plants, and cannot contain more than 24 ounces of usable cannabis per patient, up to a total of 72 ounces.

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

So in the next 60 days, the county commissioners will hold a public hearing and consider zoning laws to regulate the gardens, Swanson said.

A handful of cities in the state have passed similar moratoriums. The Vancouver City Council will discuss the issue at its meeting Monday. City officials in Battle Ground are reviewing the law and are considering whether to take any action.

Mike Cooke, Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force commander, urged the county commissioners last month to pass zoning restrictions on the collective gardens and other medical marijuana dispensaries.

“I want to have a layered system in place to curb what’s happening so that at some point if someone decides to open a dispensary — it’s illegal now but if it becomes legal — it shouldn’t be unregulated,” Cooke said.

Exploitation fears

Dispensaries are not allowed under state law, however, people have been able to use loopholes in the current law to open dispensaries in some cities, Cooke said. The new law closes those loopholes.

But Cooke worries people will exploit the new law just as he believes they’ve exploited the current law.

“It’s going to be a free-for-all,” he said of the gardens.

“People are simply taking advantage of what the voters passed,” Cooke said. “The gardens are going to be the exact same thing.”

Cooke said he wants the commissioners to approve zoning regulations to keep the gardens out of business districts and neighborhoods and away from schools, parks and churches. Limiting the gardens to industrial zones is one possibility, he said.

“If we can’t preclude them, I want us to limit them to appropriate areas,” Cooke said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.