WHITE SALMON — Despite a recent opinion from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office indicating that Initiative 502 does not prohibit local jurisdictions from banning the retail sale of marijuana, the communities of Bingen and White Salmon are not taking steps to do so.
On Jan. 16 Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued an opinion to the Washington State Liquor Control Board in response to questions posed by the entity regarding whether or not local communities could impose bans or make it cost prohibitive to open a marijuana business — be it retail, processing, or production.
The answer appears to be yes, local jurisdictions or county governments can impose bans on marijuana businesses under Initiative 502, which made the production, processing, and sale to anyone at least 21 years old legal in Washington when voters passed it in 2012.
“Although Initiative 502 (I-502) establishes a licensing and regulatory system for marijuana producers, processors, and retailers in Washington state, it includes no clear indication that it was intended to preempt local authority to regulate such businesses. We therefore conclude that I-502 left in place the normal powers of local governments to regulate within their jurisdictions,” Ferguson’s opinion reads.
The Liquor Control Board issued a statement regarding Ferguson’s opinion stating that it is unclear how this new development will impact the rest of the implementation of I-502 and that some of the aspects of a regulated marijuana trade could be lost if bans are put into place.
“If some local governments impose bans it will impact public safety by allowing the current illicit market to continue. It will also reduce the state’s expectations for revenue generated from the legal system we are putting into place,” the Liquor Control Board’s statement reads.
Brian Smith, spokesperson for the Liquor Control Board, said the board’s chair, Sharon Foster, inquired about local governments imposing bans on marijuana businesses because there were so many requests on the matter from towns and counties throughout the state.
“We were getting a number of questions about this and communities were putting moratoriums and bans into place. It was frequently asked and a lot of people had already taken a position on it,” Smith said. “We’re charged with the statewide rollout of I-502, but there were moratoriums or bans on it already in place in over half of the communities in the state.”
Klickitat County is one of those areas. On Dec. 17 the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners lifted a 60-day moratorium on the licensed processing the growing of marijuana in the county’s unincorporated areas. Under the ordinance passed by commissioners, it is legal to grow or process pot in all zoning districts, but if such a licensed operation is located in a General Industrial and Industrial Park zoning district the marijuana must be grown or processed within an enclosed building, according to the Dec. 27 edition of The Enterprise.
The question of what the county will do in terms of retail businesses aiming to sell marijuana is still unanswered. A moratorium is still in place for those who wish to sell pot in Klickitat County, but the Planning Department was instructed at the Dec. 17 meeting to report back to the commission on the matter within 60 days.
Klickitat County Planning Director Curt Dreyer said that no specifics have been hammered out as of yet, but the commission is planning on revisiting the matter soon.
Otherwise, the attorney general’s opinion verifies that city and community councils across the state can make their own decisions on whether or not they want marijuana businesses in town.
Seven businesses have applied for licenses through the Liquor Control Board to sell marijuana in Klickitat County. Three of those businesses are in Bingen, one is in White Salmon, one is in Lyle, and the rest are in Goldendale.
A cap has been placed on the number of pot shops allowed in the county. One will be permitted to open in Goldendale and three at-large businesses will be able to open elsewhere. Since there are more license applications than space for potential businesses in Klickitat County eventually a lottery will have to be held to determine which will open.
Even with the attorney general’s opinion, councils and city administration in Bingen and White Salmon do not appear to be planning restrictions or bans on marijuana businesses further than those already in place under I-502.
Bingen City Administrator Jan Brending said the city will treat a marijuana business just like any other that wants to plant roots in town.
“We’re not changing any of our zoning to specifically address marijuana-related facilities. We’re going to treat them as a commercial facility if it’s retail; if they’re growing it’s an agricultural facility, and if they’re processing it’s industrial, so we will treat them as those types of businesses within our codes,” Brending said.
She added that imposing zoning restrictions in a town as small as Bingen would basically prohibit marijuana businesses from moving in because they are already limited by the 1,000-foot buffer rule under I-502. The law states that no marijuana business can open within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, daycares, or several other youth-oriented structures and Bingen is in the process of mapping the boundaries of the 1,000-foot buffer zone around Daubenspeck Park.
White Salmon doesn’t have any plans to block marijuana-related businesses, either. The White Salmon City Council toyed with the idea of applying for a license to operate a city-owned marijuana shop at one point, but that was ultimately shut down when it was put to a vote.
The lone applicant for a retail marijuana license in White Salmon, Esverdeado, is listed at 2 Heritage Plaza Road, which is at the city-owned park and ride off of State Highway 14.
White Salmon Mayor David Poucher said the council hasn’t taken any I-502-related action since the vote on the city-run marijuana shop and that White Salmon will work with anyone who might want to lease property from the city.
“Earlier when the council decided that they were not going to apply for a retail license they did agree to lease our property to someone interested if it was available,” Poucher said. “I would assume they are still in that same frame of mind, but as far as I know we have just had some people who have said they were interested, but I haven’t seen anything in writing.”
While local jurisdictions don’t appear to be acting on the attorney general’s opinion, those attempting to open and operate businesses in Klickitat County have become desensitized to the twists and turns in the road as I-502 has been rolled out. Mark Zugsmith, owner of Pacific Overseas Tree Company, has applied for licenses to produce and process marijuana in Klickitat County and said nothing would surprise him at this point.
“I think everyone, be it this area or another, are likely open to portions of the process being smooth, as well as bumps in the road, be they application related or location related. At present, we are just putting our best forward to respond to the standards and see where we come out on the other side,” Zugsmith said in an email.