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News / Northwest

WSU study links cannabis businesses to poorer neighborhoods, as local laws limit locations

By Kip Hill, The Spokesman-Review
Published: December 5, 2019, 9:55am

Spokane — Washington’s licensed marijuana businesses are more likely to be found in poorer, less-educated neighborhoods across the state, according to a new study by researchers at Washington State University.

The phenomenon may be explained in part by a patchwork of local laws governing where such firms can locate, if they’re even allowed to operate at all.

“Here at the College of Medicine, we’re interested in looking at inequality factors across the state,” said Solmaz Amiri, a postdoctoral research associate in the WSU Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology and the study’s lead author.

The research, published in the November issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, used publicly available data from the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board and an analysis of census tracts known as the Area Deprivation Index, which charts such factors as median family income, single-parent households, median home values, employment levels and highest education attained.

The four-member research team, all WSU faculty and staff, looked at point-in-time counts of marijuana businesses from 2014 through 2017 and determined that growers, processors and sellers of cannabis all were far more likely to be located in areas with high deprivation scores compared to middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods.

The study makes no definitive conclusion about the reason for the trend, offering as potential explanations a higher demand for the drug in those neighborhoods, affordability of real estate in these areas and also state and local regulations stipulating where marijuana businesses can locate.

That last explanation makes the most sense to Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who in 2013 lobbied for allowing marijuana businesses in certain high-profile neighborhood commercial areas, including the Garland and South Perry districts. His proposed allowance was not included in the final rules for marijuana business zoning the council voted on that September, and Stuckart cast the lone vote against the rules because of its omission.

“It’s government decision-making, not just because of the industry,” he said. The proliferation of businesses in poorer neighborhoods is a direct result of that decision, Stuckart said, and his subsequent efforts to revisit the restriction haven’t earned any other backers on the City Council, he said.

Spokane allows for marijuana retailers, producers and processors in areas zoned for industrial and commercial use, as well as some portions of downtown. Also controlling the location of marijuana businesses are required 1,000-foot setbacks from certain areas such as school sites and playgrounds, which were written into state law. But local governments can relax those boundaries, as Spokane did in summer 2017.

Former City Councilman Jon Snyder, who helped shepherd Spokane’s marijuana zoning regulations through City Hall, said lawmakers were more concerned about adopting laws consistent with state mandates in 2013 than with making a political statement about where the businesses should be.

“Otherwise we’d have this weird situation where people would be applying for locations, and there would be a big court mess,” Snyder said. “We were trying to avoid that.”

But Initiative 502, passed by voters in 2012 and the subsequent rulemaking by state legislators and the Liquor and Cannabis Board left governments with latitude to determine zoning specifics. It’s why Spokane Valley has been able to prohibit new retail stores since July 2016 and also establish its own buffer zones for the Centennial and Appleway trails, Spokane Valley City Hall and vacant land owned by libraries or school districts.

In Spokane County, laws largely were established to defend property owners against encroaching odors, said Commissioner Al French. The issue prompted a moratorium on outdoor marijuana farms in November 2016. The county replaced that moratorium eight months later with tighter zoning regulations allowing for approval of new businesses.

“As we have evolved from that initial establishment of zoning ordinances to today, odor continues to be the No. 1 criteria that we were trying to address,” French said.

French, a former Spokane city councilman, also noted that Spokane’s zoning ordinances and state-level setbacks led to a proliferation of marijuana shops in the northeast corner of town, his old council district.

Crystal Oliver, an outdoor cannabis farmer and executive director of the Washington Sun Grower’s Association, a trade group representing the interest of small, outdoor operations, said the system that’s been established has echoes of past policies outlawing the drug. That makes it harder for businesses to establish themselves and continues the stigma against cannabis businesses, she said.

“You’ve got these businesses out here trying to operate normally, and they’re legal,” she said. “But they’re up against regulations, laws and zoning – any number of things that are still treating them more harshly.”

The laws limiting where marijuana businesses can open may also be contributing to the downward pressure on pricing that is pushing small players out of the industry, Oliver said. When stores are forced to locate right next to each other, whether it’s on a stretch of Trent Avenue north of Spokane Valley or on East Sprague Avenue near the city-county line, retailers are forced into a price competition that is felt throughout the industry, she said.

The WSU researchers said their goal is to inform policymakers, including elected officials and members of the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board, about the trend, not to offer suggestions of what needs to change. There isn’t enough data available, they said, to indicate ties between the businesses and positive effects, like employment numbers, or potentially problematic ones, including crime rates and health concerns.

“We know where these cannabis outlets are located,” Amiri said. “We are going to look over time, what is happening in those neighborhoods?”

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The information collected could bolster support for a program with cannabis similar to the alcohol impact areas that are currently allowed under Washington law, she said. That law allows local governments to establish geographical boundaries where business hours and alcohol content are restricted. Spokane, for example, has outlawed the sale of certain types of malt liquor and harder drinks in the downtown core and East Central neighborhoods.

As for revising the laws to allow marijuana businesses in more affluent areas, like the business districts and the South Hill, Stuckart said such a change would be an uphill battle for future city lawmakers.

“It’s the same thing you see with NIMBYism, not in my backyard,” Stuckart said. “NIMBYism is tough. If you tried to change it, then you’d have all those same neighborhoods coming out to speak against it.”