Officials dotting I's on pot business

Jurisdictions anxious to get the planning right

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter



Initiative 502 RECAP

Approved by Washington voters in November 2012, Initiative 502 legalized the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for a person older than 21.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board laid the foundation this year for how the pot could be grown and sold in the state. Restrictions include not being allowed within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, public transit center, library or any game arcade.

The liquor control board allotted six shops for Vancouver, another half-dozen for unincorporated Clark County, and one apiece for Camas, Washougal and Battle Ground.

While Washington's new marijuana law takes effect Wednesday, Clark County's cannabis aficionados will have to wait before they can walk into a local shop, slap down a $20 and buy a bag of pot.

Local jurisdictions will pause several months before issuing business licenses to retail operations interested in selling marijuana, meaning stores are unlikely to take shape until at least late next spring. For now, jurisdictions are locked into a wait-and-see period, cautious about being the first to authorize the sale of a substance the federal government lists as a Schedule 1 narcotic.

"None of us want to be the city that acts as the test case for this" said Camas Mayor Scott Higgins. "So much is unknown right now that it would be nice to have some of those questions answered."

To buy more time, jurisdictions have placed temporary moratoriums on the sale of recreational marijuana. They include Vancouver, unincorporated Clark County, Washougal, Camas and Ridgefield. Battle Ground hasn't addressed the issue.

For now, officials across the county say they have their eyes focused on what their neighbors are doing, even as business licenses from prospective retailers begin trickling in. Clark County could be home to as many as 15 pot shops, as designated by the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

Mitch Kneipp, Washougal's community development director, said his city will pay particular attention to what Vancouver does.

"We didn't want to be the first ones," he said.

The conflict between the state's voter-approved Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21, and federal drug laws remains a sticking point that needs to be hashed out, Kneipp said. Cities are nervous of running afoul of federal drug laws.

"The city will have to look at what restrictions to put in place," Kneipp said, "without completely restricting everything."

So, the question remains: Who will be the first to take the plunge into the brave new world of legal pot sales?

That answer depends on how jurisdictions choose to draft guidelines that carry out Washington State Liquor Control Board's regulations. In Vancouver, the hope is that a draft ordinance will be completed by April.

Brent Boger, who is both an assistant city attorney for Vancouver and a Washougal city councilman, said Vancouver's ordinance would explain where the city's allotted six pot stores could go.

He said the city wants more time to determine how to comply with state and federal laws.

Camas has asked the state's attorney general whether it would be lawful to approve an outright ban on recreational marijuana.

Even with the moratoriums in place, businesses continue filing business applications in the hopes of taking a piece of what promises to be a lucrative industry.

Boger said the moratoriums aren't a surprising turn, and the business license applicants will have to be patient until cities determine their course of action.

"This is the first time any state has done this, except for Colorado, which is doing it at the same time," he said. "You have to figure out how zoning will apply to this."