In Our View: Marijuana’s Legal Maze

Legalization law must be clarified, either by state Legislature or Supreme Court

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A ruling last week by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper added another layer to the labyrinth that is the state’s foray into legalized marijuana.

Culpepper upheld the right of the small town of Fife to prevent marijuana-related businesses from setting up shop, regardless of a statewide vote that approved recreational marijuana in November 2012. Although 56 percent of voters said “yes” to Initiative 502, the issue in many locales has been tied up in legal wrangling and court battles.

Culpepper’s ruling hinged on the fact that I-502 did not specifically state that legalization would override the zoning laws in individual jurisdictions. If a city or county wishes to not issue business licences to companies, that jurisdiction is within its rights. Fife City Attorney Loren Combs argued, “There is no mandate in the state law . . . that requires every city to allow marijuana businesses.” That position is supported by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who noted, “It could have said, ‘All local jurisdictions must provide for the sale of marijuana.’ “

Ah, but that simplicity would have foiled all the fun of weaving the issue through the courts. Culpepper’s decision gives strength to the position held by Clark County, Washougal, and several other local jurisdictions — part of a list of 28 cities and two counties in Washington that have moved to subvert the will of statewide voters in favor of their local sensibilities.

The argument in some cases is that marijuana remains banned under the federal Controlled Substances Act — which absurdly places the drug in the same class as heroin — and therefore must remain unattainable, at least legally. Of course, whether or not a city has legal pot outlets, some citizens are going to indulge. Attempting to prevent marijuana use does not make it any less harmful; banning its sale does not subvert the black market; pretending that it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. Yet, we can understand the desire of local policymakers to reflect the interests of their particular constituency.

The Columbian editorially supported the passage of I-502 in 2012, arguing that the United States’ prohibition on the drug has been a long-term waste of time, money and law-enforcement resources. Those arguments still hold sway, but local jurisdictions are perfectly within their rights to prevent marijuana-related businesses. About 56 percent of Washington voters agreed with legalization, but in Clark County 50.3 percent of voters cast ballots against I-502. That is a slim margin, but it lends weight to officials’ decisions to place a moratorium on such businesses.

Last week’s ruling regarding the Fife case reflects the messiness that has engulfed the issue. In case the city had lost the right to prevent marijuana businesses, Fife officials had asked the court to invalidate the statewide law under the auspices of the federal ban. Because Fife won the first part of the ruling, Culpepper was not compelled to make such a decision, but he did state that he would have been disinclined to do so. Ferguson also has opined that the state law should not be overturned.

Still, nearly two years after voters approved legalized recreational marijuana use for adults, it is time for some resolution. If the state Supreme Court does not weigh in on the issue before then, the Legislature should make it a priority in next year’s session to clarify the law and provide definitive answers. Our guess is that voters intended for marijuana to be legalized across the state, but that it not what they actually approved. Until the issue is clarified, it will remain a confusing labyrinth.