The number of businesses in Spokane specializing in medical marijuana will be frozen at about a dozen for at least the next six months.
Fearing the proliferation of businesses that sell pot before Washington even finishes crafting regulations for the state’s new legalized recreational marijuana industry, the Spokane City Council on Monday instituted a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries and related businesses.
State voters in November legalized marijuana for recreational use under state law. It remains illegal under federal law.
While possession of small amounts of the drug is legal under the new state law, Initiative 502, it remains illegal to buy or sell it until the state Liquor Control Board finalizes regulations of the new industry by Dec. 1.
In the meantime, a different voter-imposed state law continues to allow people with certain conditions to use marijuana if a “health care professional” has provided a written recommendation. The law legalizing recreational marijuana doesn’t address medical marijuana, and officials fear that medical marijuana rules are more lax than what will be faced by recreational pot businesses.
“We need a timeout,” said Councilman Jon Snyder, who said it may make sense for the same rules to apply to both recreational and medical marijuana businesses.
The state statutes on medical marijuana businesses are murky. The state Department of Health claims that dispensaries are illegal, but a court ruling last year appeared to contradict that stance. City officials say they don’t want the medical marijuana industry to grow until they understand the rules on medical marijuana and get an opportunity to institute laws that mimic what recreational pot businesses will face.
“If we don’t synch up our regulations, we are going to end up with medical marijuana facilities all over our community completely unregulated, which would undermine the legal market,” Council President Ben Stuckart said.
About 40 medical marijuana businesses were forced out of business in the Spokane area by federal authorities in 2011. But the passage of legalized recreational marijuana and a court decision late last year have sparked the re-emergence. City officials say they know of 13 medical marijuana businesses within city limits. Many of them are opening in hopes of converting to the recreational market.
The rules approved by voters for recreational marijuana are relatively strict, forcing recreational pot to be sold only by stores licensed by the state to do so. The law also creates taxes, bars the businesses from opening in many areas, sets limits on signage and prevents businesses from selling other products.
Spokane Mayor David Condon declined to comment Monday afternoon about a potential moratorium.
The council added the moratorium to its Monday night agenda after the meeting started. Officials say they kept the matter secret to prevent people from rushing to start new businesses prior to a ban. The city is now required to hold a public hearing on the moratorium.
Using the rules in the law approved by voters, city planners have crafted a map where recreational marijuana businesses might be able to locate. The map is heavily dominated by areas north of Interstate 90 and east of Division Street, especially east Hillyard, along East Trent Avenue and several commercial areas north of Francis Avenue. Another large chunk of land available for marijuana businesses is near Spokane International Airport.