The Clark County Council voted 3-2 to lift its ban on recreational cannabis businesses in unincorporated areas of the county at its Tuesday evening meeting. Recreational sales can begin in unincorporated areas of Clark County as early as Jan. 1, 2020.
The vote came after a roughly 1 1/2 -hour hearing where the council heard primarily from proponents of the ban who argued that the adverse social effects of making the drug easier to access would outstrip any revenue generated from its sale. They also heard from critics of the ban who said that prohibition has failed and the legal cannabis industry provides jobs and opportunity.
“Clearly, there is division in the county,” said Council Chair Eileen Quiring, who also noted that there was division on the council.
Councilors Temple Lentz, Julie Olson and John Blom voted in favor of lifting the ban. Quiring and Councilor Gary Medvigy voted against it.
Bans give way to buffers
The ban has been in place since 2014, two years after Washington voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing the drug for recreational use. Both Vancouver and Battle Ground allow recreational marijuana businesses.
In recent years, members of the county council began to question if the ban made sense. After Jeanne Stewart lost her seat last year to Lentz, a majority of the council began moving forward with rethinking the ban.
The ordinance approved Tuesday night paves the way for cannabis processors, producers and retailers to begin operating in unincorporated parts of the county. But the ban won’t go away immediately. The ordinance was amended to go into effect Jan. 1, 2020, from its initial date of July 15, 2019. Recreational cannabis businesses also must meet other licensing and permitting requirements.
The ordinance also restricts where recreational cannabis businesses can set up shop. The ordinance prohibits cannabis retailers from being located within 500 feet of the perimeter of recreation centers, child care facilities, public parks, transit centers, libraries, arcades, churches and substance abuse treatment facilities. Cannabis producers and processors will be prohibited from being located within a thousand feet of the same sensitive sites.
An earlier version of the ordinance, recommended by the Clark County Planning Commission, applied a 750-foot buffer. But the buffer was amended on the same 3-2 vote to 500 feet to give retailers more options on locations and to not cluster them together.
The ordinance applies a 1,000-foot buffer for all cannabis businesses to elementary and secondary schools as well as public playgrounds as required by state law.
The ordinance also specifies the respective zoning requirements for cannabis producers, processors and retailers. It does not allow retailers in rural centers, meaning they would only be allowed within the Vancouver urban growth boundary. Medical marijuana cooperatives would not be allowed by the ordinance.
Retail facilities will be barred from displaying marijuana plants and paraphernalia so they can be seen outside their building and will be allowed to stay open between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Quiring unsuccessfully attempted to amend the ordinance to require retailers to close at 8 p.m.
There are currently three businesses in unincorporated Clark County that hold retail cannabis licenses. County staff has previously stated that more than a dozen businesses in Clark County hold processing or production licenses. Previous estimates have anticipated Clark County would see $650,000 to $730,000 annually in tax revenue by lifting the ban.
Divided county, council
During Tuesday’s hearing, opponents of legal cannabis pointed out that Clark County voted against legalization in 2012. They also argued that lifting the ban would add to the drug’s potentially adverse effects on public health and safety while increasing use by adolescents. Proponents of lifting the ban said that it would generate needed revenue and economic activity.
“Who will these changes benefit? They certainly will not benefit public health or safety,” said Ann Donnelly, a businesswoman and Republican Party activist. She added, “I believe you are benefiting the few to the detriment of the entire community.”
The council heard from Sticky’s Pot Shop owner John Larson. His Hazel Dell store has fought the ban and even operated in defiance of it until losing a legal battle last year. He told the council that lifting the ban will bring recreational marijuana to unincorporated Clark County under a tightly regulated system that will keep it out of the hands of kids and criminal organizations.
“I commend the council for having the courage to do the right thing and to reject the ignorance and the hysteria that has dictated recreational marijuana policy up to this point,” he said.
Medvigy, a Republican who represents a predominantly rural district, acknowledged the “hysteria” around cannabis and said there are “good people” who work in the industry.
He said that the federal government should change marijuana’s designation as a Schedule 1 drug, which places significant restrictions on its use. He said that doing so would allow needed research, “so we’re not experimenting with our people.” But Medvigy, a retired prosecutor and judge, said the drug can cause psychotic breaks and lead to harder drug use.
“I will tell you that I’ve had over 30 years in criminal justice, saw thousands of cases and this notion that it’s not a gateway drug is a false narrative,” he said.
Lentz, the council’s sole Democrat, made brief remarks that she wanted to represent her west Vancouver-based district, which she said voted for legalization. She and Olson, a Republican, also made remarks on the importance of youth education.
“I’m trying to let the data drive my decision on where we go with this,” said Olson, who noted that she voted against legalization.
Olson cited research and studies showing that legalization didn’t affect youth use, generate more crime and that pot businesses have high compliance rates with the law.
“It’s been illegal, and yet we still have all of these problems, on top of that it’s legal in the city of Vancouver,” said Blom, a Republican.
Quiring said that the county had extensive outreach before enacting the ban and that it was unfortunate that the county didn’t do more outreach before lifting it.
“I’m really sad that we’re doing that,” she said. “But that’s what it is; here we are.”