Clark County to extend medical pot gardens ban

Commissioners again choose to heed federal law, even though grows are legal under state regulations

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Clark County commissioners said Wednesday they will extend a moratorium on collective medical marijuana gardens.

Adopted last year, the moratorium is set to expire in July.

The gardens are permissible under state law.

But, as reinforced in a letter received by commissioners from the U.S. Department of Justice, the gardens are illegal under federal law. And commissioners say they will remain illegal in Clark County, as well.

On Wednesday, the commissioners’ senior policy advisor, Axel Swanson, shared a letter he’d received from the Drug Enforcement Administration that said county employees would not be immune from prosecution if they do work related to zoning and permitting of the collective gardens.

Swanson said he’d already received calls from other local governments, wanting a copy of the letter.

Under a state law that took effect July 22, 2011, patients and designated providers can come together and plant a collective garden with no more than 45 plants.

The gardens became a sticky issue for local governments, which need to establish zoning districts where gardens can be located. Commissioners set policy for unincorporated areas, which include Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek and Felida; the city of Vancouver and smaller cities also enacted moratoriums last year.

In December, commissioners sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to ask advice.

Holder’s agency had already said state employees would not be immune from liability under the Controlled Substances Act.

“Specifically, the Board of Clark County Commissioners wants to know whether that would also be true if county employees are asked to knowingly zone, review, permit and inspect facilities for producing, processing, transporting and delivering medical cannabis. Would the Board of Clark County Commissioners or county employees be immune from arrest and liability when, in the course of their jobs, they do work related to zoning, review of permits and inspections of these facilities?”

In a response from Joseph T. Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Diversion Control, the answer was clear: “Anyone who knowingly carries out the marijuana activities contemplated by Washington state law, as well as anyone who facilitates such activities, or conspires to commit such violations, is subject to criminal prosecution as provided in the CSA. That same conclusion would apply with equal force to the proposed activities of the Board of Clark County Commissioners and Clark County employees.”

“Such persons may also be subject to money laundering statutes,” Rannazzisi added.

Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed many other sections of a legislative bill that was meant to provide a structure to regulate and license the use, distribution and processing of medical marijuana. The governor left it up to local governments to establish those guidelines.

In 1998, state voters approved Initiative 692, which decriminalized the limited use of medical marijuana for patients suffering from a terminal or debilitating illness. The law was expanded in 2007 to include the definition of diseases and conditions for which marijuana could be prescribed.

No date has been set for commissioners to expand the moratorium.