Clark County extends medical marijuana moratorium

Policy adviser expects substantial public interest in determining where collective gardens can be located

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Clark County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to extend last year's moratorium on collective medical marijuana gardens and adopted a nine-step plan to develop regulations.

The moratorium is slated to expire in June 2013 but could be lifted as soon as zoning rules and other conditions are in place.

The collective gardens are permissible under state law but illegal under federal law.

Also Tuesday, a Clark County judge dismissed a citizen's criminal complaint -- a process by which a citizen can argue to a judge that there's probable cause to believe a crime has been committed -- that was filed against the commissioners and other senior-level county staff members over medical marijuana.

Brush Prairie resident James Barber Sr. alleged the officials knowingly made a false or misleading statement to a public official in a Dec. 2, 2011, letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. In the letter, commissioners described state law and sought advice on whether county employees would be immune from liability under the federal Controlled Substance Act if they were asked to zone, permit or inspect facilities used to produce medical marijuana.

The letter was referred to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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.

Barber argued Tuesday to District Court Judge John Hagensen that the county's letter included information they knew was false, based on Barber's interpretation of state law. Clark County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Bernard Veljacic said the officials were simply making an inquiry about an unsettled matter of law.

Hagensen said there was not probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.

Barber, who had threatened to sue the county over the matter, was the only person to testify on the moratorium.

He was pleased with the new version, which clarifies that the county isn't seeking to prevent limited use of medical marijuana by patients with certain conditions, which has been legal since 1998.

Sticky issue

Last year, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a law that says patients and designated providers can come together and plant a collective garden with no more than 45 plants. But she vetoed many other sections of a legislative bill 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.

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.

Vancouver officials plan to extend the moratorium.

Axel Swanson, the commissioners' senior policy adviser, proposed a nine-step plan for developing regulations for the medical cannabis gardens. The steps include meeting with stakeholders including neighborhood groups and patient-provider groups and studying what other jurisdictions have done. He wrote that he expects substantial public interest in where the collective gardens can be located. Recommendations will be vetted by the Clark County Planning Commission before they go to the county commissioners.

Swanson noted that by extending the moratorium, commissioners will know the outcome of Initiative 502.

The measure, which will be on the November ballot, proposes to legalize, regulate and tax sales of marijuana to people 21 and older.

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