Clark County still saying no to pot gardens

Local officials monitoring key Supreme Court case

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County plans to stay the course on its work to ban collective medical marijuana gardens. But the county is also playing a bit of a waiting game after the Washington Supreme Court put a similar ban on hold elsewhere in the state.

Last week, Washington Supreme Court Commissioner Steven Goff issued a temporary stay on the city of Kent's ban on the gardens. The stay will remain in place as the Supreme Court determines if it will hear the case, or first send it to the court of appeals.

Last month, Clark County commissioners instructed staff to draft policy banning the zoning of such gardens on county lands. The reasoning for the decision is that, while medical marijuana is legal in the state, it remains illegal at the federal level, and zoning an illegal use could violate federal law. The ban in the city of Kent was mentioned during a workshop discussion as an example of a similar ban.

Still, commissioners say the fact that staff is working on banning the zoning doesn't mean the decision is final.

"We would like to see what is done at the federal level first," said Commissioner Tom Mielke. "I can't see us jumping on one way or the other at this point."

The county placed a moratorium on gardens after the state legalized them last year, and the moratorium doesn't expire until June. That gives the county time to monitor legal proceedings, such as those involving the city of Kent.

"We will stay with the direction of the commissioners," said Axel Swanson, senior policy analyst. "But we need to pay attention to cases like in Kent."

Collective gardens allow up to 10 patients to grow up to 45 plants in a shared space, and were approved by the state last year.

Different jurisdictions have handled the gardens in their own ways. The city of Vancouver approved zoning the gardens earlier this month. The gardens are allowed only in light industrial or heavy industrial zones within the city.

Both commissioners and city councilors have recognized they are in a tough spot between the state, which allows the use, and the federal level, which bans it.

It's likely the policy decisions will only get tougher in the coming years. While unrelated to the medical gardens, voter-approved Initiative 502 calls for the state to license growers of recreational marijuana in the coming years.

Commissioners said it is still far too soon to determine how they will look at zoning that use, or if it will even be a decision for them to make.

"We will continue to monitor that as well," said Commissioner Steve Stuart.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board is tasked with adopting rules on how that use will be governed. It has until Dec. 1, 2013 to finalize those rules, and the agency has said it expects to take the full year to craft policy.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov;erik.hidle@columbian.com.