Vancouver sets rules for marijuana gardens

Groups of patients can grow pot, within limits

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Collective medical marijuana gardens will be allowed in certain city zones, as the Vancouver City Council voted 6-1 on Monday to approve them.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt acknowledged that the ordinance isn't going to please everyone, as people who testified Monday said the zoning rules were too restrictive.

"We can take that up and evaluate it over the next year," Leavitt said. "We always have the option to amend our ordinances."

While more than two dozen people showed up at City Hall, only six testified. Five spoke in favor of the ordinance and one person -- who works for the Clark County Sheriff's Office -- remained neutral.

Sgt. Shane Gardner, speaking as a neighborhood association leader, said he understands that the city councilors were in a difficult spot as they are caught between conflicting state and federal laws. He said he appreciated the code restrictions, such as the fact that gardens must be at least 1,000 feet from schools, community centers, public parks, licensed day care facilities and other collective gardens.

James Barber, who has sued the city over the extended moratorium on collective gardens, said medical marijuana shouldn't be treated differently from other prescription drugs.

"Do you want to get into people's medicine cabinets?" Barber asked.

Vancouver resident Matt Wood said he feels people who grow medical marijuana for terminally ill patients get lumped in with people who abuse the system.

Under the new law, collective gardens will be only in areas zoned either light industrial or heavy industrial.

Such zones include the Port of Vancouver, Columbia Business Center and Columbia Tech Center business park.

The spaces at the port are too large and expensive for patients to rent, Wood said. He would like the city to add more locations. "It is not perfect, but it is a start," Wood said of the ordinance.

Mike Sutherland, director of Medi Brothers, told the council he provides medical marijuana to qualifying patients.

Medical marijuana was decriminalized in Washington in 1989, but there are too many restrictions, he said. "Our number one goal is safe access for patients."

It wasn't until 2011 that state regulations were established for collective gardens, and Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed several sections of the bill. She left it for local jurisdictions to decide whether to set zoning restrictions.

The city first enacted a six-month moratorium on collective gardens in July 2011.

Had the council done nothing on Monday, the moratorium would have expired at the end of the year and the gardens would have been allowed in every zone.

Under the city ordinance, operators do not need to obtain a business permit from the city, but they do need to notify the city and give the city a contact name and number.

Up to 10 patients can share a collective garden with no more than 45 plants.

Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken said a copy of each patient's medical documentation must be kept on the premises. A patient can belong to only one garden at a time, and has to be a member for 30 days before receiving any marijuana. The gardens will have to be inside a building secured with deadbolt locks, and no signs or symbols advertising the garden will be allowed.

Also, no on-site sales, including sales of drug paraphernalia, will be permitted.

Eiken said the law will take effect Dec. 8.

Councilor Bill Turlay voted against the ordinance, as he said in an earlier meeting he would not support something that's in violation of federal law.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart initially said Monday that the federal government needs to reassess medical marijuana and possibly reclassify it. This shouldn't be a fight at the local level, she said. Councilor Larry Smith followed Stewart's remarks by saying he lives in the real world, where federal officials can't even balance a budget. We can't wait for the feds to act, Smith said.

Councilors Jack Burkman and Jeanne Harris said they will side with state law over federal law, particularly since voters declassified medical marijuana years ago and in November a majority of voters supported Initiative 502.

That law, which takes effect Thursday, allows adults 21 and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana.

After hearing from the other councilors, Stewart changed her mind and voted for the ordinance.

Councilor Bart Hansen and Leavitt also voted yes.

Last week, the county commissioners, who have authority over unincorporated areas, indicated they will ban the gardens.

The county's moratorium doesn't expire until the summer.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.