SEATTLE -- Washington state is changing its plans for where marijuana businesses can be located, after the Justice Department said that enforcing federal drug laws near schools and playgrounds remains a priority "and will not be compromised for convenience."
The state's Liquor Control Board, which is writing rules for the new legal pot industry here, had sought to ease some zoning restrictions on licensed marijuana gardens, processing facilities and stores by changing the way it measured how far the businesses were from schools, playgrounds and other sensitive areas.
Instead of measuring the distance as the crow flies, the board announced last week that it planned to measure the distance by the path of most common travel. That would have opened up some areas for pot businesses that otherwise would not have been, especially in crowded cities.
In response, the DOJ told the board that it will continue enforcing the law as it has been, and any pot business within 1,000 feet of a school or playground -- as measured by a straight line -- is at risk of prosecution.
"Prior marijuana enforcement in both Eastern and Western Washington has focused on keeping dispensaries out of school zones, and that work will continue," Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan told The Associated Press in a written statement Friday. "It has been an important bright line and a well-established one. It is to protect children and will not be compromised for convenience."
In late August, the DOJ announced that it would not sue Washington, Colorado or other states that want to regulate marijuana as long as they adhere to eight federal enforcement priorities, including keeping pot away from kids and cartels, preventing drugged driving and gun violence associated with pot distribution, and keeping pot off federal property.
Marijuana industry lobbyist Ezra Eickmeyer said Liquor Control Board member Chris Marr informed him Friday that the board would be changing the rule in accord with federal law. The board declined to comment, but scheduled an announcement for 2 p.m. Friday.
Federal law doubles the criminal penalty for producing or distributing controlled substances within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or public housing.
Washington's legal marijuana law, passed by voters last fall, adds recreation centers, child care centers, public parks, public transit centers, libraries and game arcades to the list of facilities pot businesses must keep 1,000 feet away from.
In some cities, especially Seattle, that leaves little room for siting pot businesses. If people have to drive too far to get to a licensed pot shop, state officials worry, that could make it more difficult to channel marijuana users away from the black market and into the regulated, taxed one.
"The more restrictive they make the map, the more the retail stores are going to have to cluster into crowded little areas," Eickmeyer said. "If our goal is to eliminate illegal sales, this push is in the opposite direction."
Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who drafted the legal pot law, said that from a public policy standpoint, she saw little reason to define the distance as a straight line. The enhanced federal penalties, she argued, are designed to punish black market dealers who target kids -- not people who are participating in a regulated state industry.
"We're talking about actors who are completely different from street dealers standing outside elementary schools," she said.