January 31, 2014 in City

Lawmakers consider options to community bans on pot sales

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – Washington legislators are trying to decide whether to offer a carrot or use a stick against local governments that don’t want to let recreational marijuana businesses set up shop inside their borders.

The carrot: Offering up some of the taxes those businesses will be required to pay the state as the drug moves from harvest to sale.

The stick: A flat-out ban on interfering with pot businesses that get state licenses.

Not surprisingly, cities and counties would rather have the cash. But they’re reluctant to promise they’d issue business permits even then.

That was one of the messages Thursday as the House Government Oversight and Accountability Committee sorted through three bills spawned by various bans and moratoriums on recreational marijuana businesses around the state. Liberty Lake is among those with a ban.

A carrot is being offered by Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, in House Bill 2144. It would place almost a third of the excise tax collected from sales at new recreational marijuana stores into a special account and send money back to the city or county where the sales occurred.

The proposal fixes an “oversight” in Initiative 502, which doesn’t set aside money for extra costs of law enforcement and drug treatment cities and counties might see from marijuana use, Condotta said. “There is nothing in it, so to speak, for local governments.”

A few local governments have passed bans on marijuana businesses, and dozens more have put any requests on hold while they study the issue. That could lead to a patchwork of communities with legal marijuana businesses next to others that ban them, said committee Chairman Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw. Illegal sales would grow in the communities without licensed businesses, he predicted.

Some city officials said the money being offered might not be enough to cover their extra costs, but they didn’t know what those costs might be. Colorado, which also has legalized recreational marijuana, offers its cities a portion of the license fees as well as some tax money, Kent Mayor Suzette Cook said.

But Mario Martinez, mayor of Mabton, said his city welcomes entrepreneurs from the Puget Sound area who want to start marijuana businesses in the small Yakima County community. They’ve already decided they want the jobs and will take any new money the state would offer.

“We need West Side capital and business savvy,” Martinez said. “Mabton is open for business.”

Condotta’s bill isn’t the only proposal that would send some marijuana tax money to local government. Sen. Mike Baumgartner and Rep. Jeff Holy, both Republicans from Spokane County, each have separate bills to send $20 million of it to cities and $5 million to counties.

Other House members have proposals that would add a section to the state’s drug laws to say local governments can’t pre-empt state regulations on marijuana. The law already contains that provision for other drugs, but because I-502 didn’t specifically say that, a recent attorney general’s opinion said cities and counties can put further restrictions on marijuana businesses.

Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, sponsor of one of those bills, criticized Pierce County officials for enacting a ban even though I-502 passed in the county. “They are completely denying the voters what they voted for,” he said.

Members of the committee agreed, but that argument changed when Kennewick City Councilman Dan Britain said a majority of his city voted against I-502 and restrictions should be left up to the cities.

A majority of his district voted against the same-sex marriage referendum, replied Condotta; should Wenatchee be allowed to outlaw gay marriage?

All the proposals need work, Hurst said, and their future is uncertain. State law requires a two-thirds majority of both houses to change anything about an initiative in the two years after it passes. “That’s a hard climb to make,” he said.


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