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Yakima County launches legal fight to shut down pot businesses

Marijuana plants grow Jan. 13, 2015, in a facility in Arlington, Wash. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Marijuana plants grow Jan. 13, 2015, in a facility in Arlington, Wash. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

Yakima County authorities on Wednesday took their first step in enforcing a ban on marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas of the county by filing a court action seeking to shut down a cannabis retail shop.

The county filed a complaint in Yakima County Superior Court seeking an order to shut down The Canyon at 3120 Mapleway Road north of Yakima near Gleed, saying the store is in violation of the county’s ordinance prohibiting operations that grow, process and sell recreational marijuana in unincorporated areas of the county.

“This is the first step and we will be persistent and consistent in our efforts to enforce the ban that’s been in place,” said Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita. “We would hope that those other people who are not in compliance with the (ban) take action to become compliant – in other words, cease operations.”

Store owners couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night. But a consultant who serves marijuana businesses throughout the region and helped them form an association said the county will have a legal battle on its hands.

“We do plan on fighting back very robustly, not only against this but (also) for any other business that is approached by the county,” said the consultant, Jeffrey McPhee.

In the Superior Court complaint, the county seeks an abatement order allowing county authorities or a subcontractor to enter the store property – by force if needed – and shut down the operation and remove any property in violation of the ban. The complaint also seeks to shield the county from any liability for damage or loss of property in an abatement action and to hold the store liable for abatement costs.

Leita wouldn’t say whether more immediate action would be taken against the more than 20 other marijuana businesses – mostly growers and producers – operating despite the ban.

“I’m not going to state what and when our next step will be, but we will be taking additional steps,” he said.

The move comes after more than a year of discussion and a $200,000 budget increase to beef up the county’s code enforcement office to handle the work of enforcing the ban.

Leita said the county is prepared to defend any legal challenge to the ban.

“We’ve been very intentional and methodical in our approach here and we will continue to do that,” Leita said. “This isn’t intended to be a sprint – this is going to be an ongoing process.”

The ban has been in place for two years, and commissioners based it on how Yakima County voters in 2012 rejected the legalization of recreational marijuana despite statewide approval.

An advisory vote last November showed county voters had not changed their position, with more than 60 percent in support of upholding the ban.

Proponents of cannabis businesses criticize the election, saying it was held during an off year when voter turnout is typically low, and that the ballot question was confusing because a “yes” vote meant not to allow cannabis business while a “no” vote would allow them.

Many of the state-licensed marijuana businesses operating in unincorporated areas of the county say they were low-key operations solely catering to the medicinal market. County authorities let them operate for medicinal purposes only.

But a change in state regulations in the summer of 2016 placed medicinal marijuana supplies – which before was regulated separately – into the broader recreational market and in violation of the county’s ban.

Operating the marijuana businesses despite the ban is a civil infraction, and McPhee said it’s unfair for the county to prioritize enforcement action against them while there are many code violations such as junked and abandoned cars and structures built without proper permits that have been outstanding for years.

“We understand this to be incredibly discriminatory to ignore all other code violations and to cherry-pick a single state-licensed business,” McPhee said.


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