YAKIMA – Five years after Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana, uncertainty continues in cities and counties across the state over how to regulate pot businesses – or whether to allow them at all.
For example, Yakima County voters will determine in November whether a ban on such businesses in unincorporated areas of the county should remain. Last year, the city of Yakima lifted its ban, allowing recreational marijuana retail stores.
To the east, Benton County seeks to cap the number of retail marijuana stores in its unincorporated areas but still broadly allows growers and processors.
And Spokane County recently lifted a moratorium on outdoor marijuana growing operations in its unincorporated areas but now requires future ones to acquire a conditional-use permit, a process that involves a public hearing.
A look across the statewide landscape reveals that varying concerns among different communities are fostering a checkerboard landscape of where and what types of marijuana businesses are allowed.
One cause behind the differing approaches is that marijuana isn’t designated as “agriculture” by the state, which causes zoning difficulties for some local governments, said Seattle attorney Daniel Shortt, who specializes in legal issues facing the marijuana industry.
Under state law, growers, processors and retailers have to abide by rules similar to those for liquor stores. They have to be at least 1,000 feet away from parks, churches, schools and other areas where youths may congregate. In addition, they must follow a slew of other operating regulations such as security and inventory tracking requirements and advertising restrictions.
“Without an agriculture designation, it’s tougher for cities and counties to fit these businesses into existing code,” Shortt said. “For businesses, it’s tough to find a location that meets those restrictions. It’s created a lot of uncertainty in the industry.”
Jeffry McPhee, a regional consultant for marijuana businesses, said a recently formed marijuana growers association he heads is lobbying to have marijuana designated agriculture by the state.
“If we get that, I think we’ll see a shift in counties because it will become easier to zone,” he said.
There are more than 160 growers and processors in Spokane County, but commissioners enacted a moratorium in November, saying they were inundated with complaints from residents about the smell emitted from grows.
Complaints about a retail store in an unincorporated area surrounded by the city of West Richland – which prohibits marijuana businesses – has Benton County commissioners seeking to cap the number of retailers in the county to two already in existence.
Kittitas County, which doesn’t allow any pot retail in its unincorporated areas, initially allowed growers and producers under an agriculture designation. Seeing a need for stiffer regulations, county commissioners later moved to require future operations to be zoned industrial and seek a conditional-use permit, said Dan Carlson, director of the county’s Community Development Services.
“We have a handful of facilities that got vested prior to the change, and we’re still monitoring them on a regular basis,” he said.
But zoning difficulty isn’t the only issue influencing whether a community allows marijuana businesses.
Political viewpoints and fear of the federal government’s stance on marijuana under President Donald Trump’s administration also are factors, Shortt said.
Yakima County commissioners have said they based a ban on the fact that county voters rejected Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana. Even so, the measure earned statewide approval in 2012.
But that was before the state folded medicinal marijuana into the broader recreational market. There are more than 20 state-licensed growers and producers operating in unincorporated areas of the county, many saying they initially were low-key operations solely catering to the medicinal market without any interference from the county.
Now commissioners want to gauge the pulse of voters before deciding whether to enforce the ban or lift it.
Meanwhile, marijuana business proponents say the economic benefits from the industry are too promising to pass up, McPhee said, adding that there are 60 pending business licenses in Yakima County sought by growers and producers eager to tap the rural soil here.
“There are a lot of companies that would like to relocate” from west of the Cascades, he said. “That’s a lot of jobs. If we were to lift this ban, I think we’d see an influx of businesses.”
And the public attitude toward marijuana is changing, Shortt said.
“You’re seeing different users coming in; more seniors are using cannabis,” he said. “Stores are looking more like a Starbucks; there’s more branding. The whole industry is evolving, and it’s certainly facing some growing pains.”
Meanwhile, the state continues to offer small incentives for communities to allow marijuana businesses. There’s a pool of $6 million in excise taxes that will go to communities allowing such retail. Last year, Union Gap’s share was $85,000, plus whatever retail tax the city collected, said Brian Smith, state Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman in Olympia.
Although there are no taxes collected at the grower and processor level, the county would get a share in the excise taxes cities within its boundaries receive, he said.
The effort is to continue to establish a regulated marijuana market and undermine the black market, Smith said.
“Because there are still going to be marijuana sales in cities – it’s just black market sales,” he said.