Clark County extends pot moratorium

Prospective business owners say county is turning down their money

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Clark County commissioners Tuesday extended a temporary moratorium on marijuana-related businesses until later this spring, a move intended to give the county more time to draft a long-term zoning ordinance regulating the growing, processing and selling of pot.

The effective ban will be in place until June 11 at the latest. If the county adopts a zoning ordinance before that date, then the moratorium will be lifted, while the ordinance will go into effect. The county’s six-month moratorium was set to expire this month.

The ordinance could become a countywide ban on marijuana businesses, something state Attorney General Bob Ferguson last month deemed allowable under Initiative 502, the pot-legalizing initiative voters approved in 2012.

Commissioners have given no indication they plan on ever allowing marijuana businesses within unincorporated Clark County. On Jan. 8, commissioners signaled they were considering an effective ban on all marijuana-related operations.

That position didn’t shift Tuesday, despite pleas from prospective pot-related business owners who said they could pump millions of dollars into the local economy if given a chance.

“I am ready to build in the county,” said Tad Sifford, a self-described entrepreneur, in a statement to commissioners. “I am ready to add to your tax base.”

He said he was willing to spend $500,000 to $750,000 on a facility to grow and process marijuana. Now, he may start looking at other locations.

The Liquor Control Board has capped the maximum number of pot shops statewide at 334 and said Clark County could be home to up to 15 marijuana retailers, including six in the unincorporated areas where commissioners have control. The rest would be in cities: six stores in Vancouver and one store apiece in Camas, Washougal and Battle Ground.

There are guidelines in place regulating where such businesses can develop. The state says they must be at least 1,000 feet from schools, playgrounds, recreation centers, child care centers, public parks, transit centers, libraries and arcades.

With the state’s regulations in place, others at Tuesday’s hearing, including marijuana educator Paula Tschida, said the commissioners were leaving prospective business owners in the lurch, at a time when economic development was at a premium.

Although Tschida wouldn’t be growing or selling marijuana herself, she planned to start a business providing seminars to people in the marijuana industry. She’d received push-back from the county, she said.

“For me,” she said, “this has not been a business-friendly location.”

The board of commissioners stood unanimous in not backing down, arguing that the county likely won’t allow growing, selling or processing of pot until the federal government legalizes the drug. In part, Commissioner Steve Stuart said, that is because Clark County is “particularly vulnerable” to federal scrutiny because of its shared border with Oregon.

While both Washington and Colorado, whose voters also legalized marijuana with a 2012 initiative, have received assurances from the federal government that they won’t be prosecuted under existing drug laws as long as they meet certain stipulations, there are concerns that marijuana will make its way over state lines.

Commissioner David Madore, himself a business owner, said that while he considers himself “business-friendly”— going so far as to sport a lapel button reading “JOBS” — the county had to adhere to both state and federal laws. Because they conflict, the county is choosing federal law. He said people should work to change the law if they feel strongly about it.

“Law is not made by people voting. It’s made by Congress,” he said, “When you’re appealing to (county commissioners), you’re appealing to people who don’t have any control.”

For Sifford, the entrepreneur, Madore’s comments only served to heighten his belief that Vancouver would see most of the growth in business related to Initiative 502. The city is expected to lift its moratorium on marijuana-related businesses in March.

“If he was interested in jobs, he’d be interested in the (money) I plan to sink into this,” Sifford said

The county’s planning commission will address zoning issues related to marijuana businesses at two meetings next month, a March 6 workshop followed by a March 20 hearing.

The commission will make a recommendation to the board later this spring.