Clark County may ban pot until feds legalize it

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: January 8, 2014, 8:27 PM

 

Clark County commissioners signaled Wednesday they are considering an effective ban on all marijuana-related operations.

With a six-month moratorium set to expire in February, commissioners said during a work session Wednesday they will need to issue another moratorium because they know they won’t have an ordinance on marijuana adopted in time.

They also directed staff to prepare a draft ordinance modeled after Pierce County’s, which sets restrictions on marijuana facilities but includes a whopper of a caveat: “No application for a marijuana-licensed business shall be approved by Pierce County until such time as marijuana is removed from the schedule of controlled substances at 21 U.S.C. sec. 812(c) as evidenced by a slip law available from the Library of Congress.”

In other words, if commissioners end up adopting an ordinance modeled on Pierce County’s, the county won’t allow growing, processing or selling of marijuana in unincorporated areas until the federal government legalizes the drug, said Chris Horne, Clark County’s chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney.

As to whether an effective ban would be legal, Axel Swanson, the county’s senior policy adviser, told commissioners he’s awaiting a written opinion from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Ferguson was asked Nov. 1 by the chairwoman of the Washington State Liquor Control Board to determine whether local jurisdictions have the authority to ban state-licensed sellers and producers.

Horne said the beauty of Pierce County’s ordinance is, if local jurisdictions are told bans aren’t allowed, the objectionable section can just be redacted.

State restrictions

Initiative 502, which legalized possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for adults ages 21 and older, was approved by voters in 2012.

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.

Vancouver, Camas and Washougal have moratoriums; Battle Ground City Council hasn’t taken any action, but most of the land in the city’s commercial district would not be eligible for a store because of the state’s setback requirements.

While recreational use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice said in August it would not sue Washington, Colorado or other states that wish to legalize marijuana so long as it’s sufficiently regulated.

The state already says the businesses must be at least 1,000 feet from schools, playgrounds, recreation centers, child care centers, public parks, transit centers, libraries and arcades.

Tentatively, retail sales of marijuana will be allowed in general commercial zones, so long as they meet the state’s 1,000-feet-setback requirements.

Also under the interim standards, people who receive state licenses to grow and process marijuana would be able to do so only in light and heavy industrial districts.

Pierce County’s ordinance stresses the need to “distribute these businesses throughout unincorporated Pierce County as to ensure adequate access to licensed retail businesses to discourage the continued operation of the illegal market.” Pierce County, which ranks only behind King County in population statewide, was approved for up to 17 marijuana retailers.

One section of its ordinance that Clark County commissioners particularly liked mentions concerns “about secondary impacts from the establishment of facilities for the growth, production and processing of marijuana including, but not limited to, negative health, safety, learning and life outcomes for the residents of Pierce County.”

Dr. Alan Melnick, the director of the county’s health department, said Wednesday that if stores are allowed, they should not be disproportionately located in low-income areas.

More questions

Commissioners first passed a moratorium because they needed time to figure out logistics. The county has hosted open houses for people to find out more information; they were attended by a total of 54 people, said Gordy Euler, a county planner.

Euler told commissioners Wednesday to decide what he should present to the county planning commission, an advisory group that makes recommendations to commissioners.

Commissioner Tom Mielke, chairman of the board, asked basic questions on Wednesday such as how many retail stores would be permitted in the county, which was announced by the Liquor Control Board four months ago. He, along with Commissioners Steve Stuart and David Madore, said there were still too many unanswered questions.

“There’s a whole bunch I personally don’t understand,” Mielke said.

Madore discussed the possibility of including all school bus stops in the 1,000-feet-setback requirements, a restriction Horne called impractical because there are hundreds of school bus stops and the locations change. Also, Horne said, school bus stops are mostly in residential areas; marijuana stores are going to be in commercial zones.

Madore also expressed concern that people will call 911 to report marijuana-related activity, and police officers won’t know how to respond. Chief Criminal Deputy Mike Evans of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office said such calls would be screened by 911 dispatchers, same as with any other call.

Evans said he has concerns about security at marijuana stores, and questioned whether stores should be required to have 24-hour high-definition security cameras in case owners get robbed.

The commissioners’ decisions didn’t sit well with many of the 60-plus people who attended the work session at the Public Service Center.

Brandon Christy, who has applied to have a retail store in Hazel Dell, said when commissioners approved the moratorium last year they said they needed time to figure out zoning and other details.

Christy said he feels as though the commissioners are stalling and wondered what they have been doing these past months when they said they’d research the issue.

“It’s like they are completely abolishing the industry before it even begins,” Christy said. He said he wished commissioners would follow King County’s lead, which has adopted regulations for unincorporated areas.

Carl Beebe, who applied to grow and process marijuana in the Battle Ground area, agreed.

Waiting for federal law to change could take forever, he said.

“I was disappointed (commissioners) didn’t know more about the issue,” said Beebe, who has attended the county’s open houses and Liquor Control Board meetings.

While there was no public hearing at Wednesday’s work session, the public will have an opportunity to testify about the proposed ordinance when it goes to the planning commission and county commissioners. The proposed ordinance has not yet been placed on any agendas.