Cities, Counties Want Fine-Tuned Rules For Legal Pot Shops And Grow Ops

Industry group sees need for more local autonomy on rule-setting; it's a trust builder.

Spokane is one of several Washington cities where placement of legal, retail marijuana shops has prompted concerns. State lawmakers are considering a related measure for the 2017 session. A spokesperson says the industry isn't keen on new regulations but wants to earn trust. Seen here is the Monroe Street Bridge, in Spokane. Photo: fbhwa.org.

Persistent community concerns across Washington about recreational marijuana stores and growers may help drive changes to existing state and local regulations. One state lawmaker has proposed granting cities and counties explicit authority to restrict pot shops in neighborhoods with addiction problems.

Alcohol Impact Areas And Marijuana Shops May Not Blend Well

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes is located in downtown Spokane is only a few hundred feet away from a marijuana retail store. Both are in an alcohol impact area (AIA). That’s a place where there’s been chronic public drunkenness or illegal activity related to liquor sales or consumption. Local jurisdictions can pinpoint the boundaries, bar sales of high-octane beverages and control stores’ hours.

Other cities with designated AIAs include Seattle, Olympia and Tacoma.

The Spokane church’s leaders believe similar restrictions should be placed on pot stores inside alcohol impact areas. Several members testified at a work session held by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee in Spokane on May 12 concerning Senate Bill 5228. The measure would specifically grant cities the ability to implement such bans.

The committee work session was held in response to the concerns about pot shops in downtown Spokane AIAs. It was proposed in March by Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6). He plans to reintroduce it during the 2017 legislative session.

One of the church’s fears is that the cannabis store will make it harder for them to carry out charitable work with people suffering from various addictions.

Presence Of Minors Another Concern

Sister Paschalina Marie Peters is the cathedral’s coordinator for religious education for youth and children. She said they’re also concerned about the pot shop’s presence not only because the neighborhood is already an AIA, but also because of how many minors frequent the church.

“It’s disturbing for us to have a recreational marijuana retailer extremely approximate to our campus,” she said.

Technically cities already have the power to ban pot shops. Courts have ruled in favor of cities that have banned or regulated marijuana businesses. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has also supported local authority.

However, the cases are now in the Court of Appeals after the state Supreme Court declined to hear them.

Bill Would Make Local Powers More Explicit

The proposed Senate bill would give local jurisdictions the explicit authority to prohibit stores in alcohol impact areas. Legalities aside, some are skeptical such bans would actually work. Liquor and Cannabis Board officials at the May 12 meeting wondered if an addict could simply find a street dealer instead.

Whether or not these restrictions are effective, cities and counties should have these regulatory tools to deal with loopholes in current state law, said Baumgartner.

He added that along with alcohol impact areas, cities should have the ability to protect unlicensed daycare centers and religious institutions that aren’t protected under I-502’s 1,000 foot buffer rule. It already applies to licensed daycare centers, schools and public parks.

“Ideally you push those decisions as close as possible to local levels,” he said.

King County Council On The Hot Seat

Other residents in the state have also complained about the potential impacts of marijuana stores and growing operations in their communities. Unease among unincorporated communities in King County led the Metropolitan Council to impose a four-month moratorium on applications for marijuana retail stores or growers.

The moratorium’s sponsor was Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who represents the county’s ninth district. He told the council at their April 25 meeting that his office has been contacted over a 100 times by people expressing concern about marijuana stores or growers in their neighborhoods.

Ravensdale is a rural unincorporated area in southeast King County. Residents there are among those who’ve voiced fears that unrestricted marijuana growing operations will disrupt their community’s rural character, Dunn said.

“We have a duty to make sure their voice is heard,” he said.

King County allows for marijuana growing in residential rural areas, while Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap and Thurston counties do not.

Dunn told Lens that the intent isn’t to regulate the marijuana industry out of existence in unincorporated areas. They just want to come up with regulations that make sense.

A Light Touch On Regulation Is Key, Dunn Says

“Quite frankly there are benefits to lighter regulations,” he said. “Marijuana is going to be a job creator.”

The proposed moratorium was amended prior to approval to include retail shops in response to concerns by residents in urban unincorporated communities like Bryn Mawr-Skyway, which has at least three stores.

Skyway resident Mark Johnston told the council at their April 25 meeting that having so many stores in their community is inappropriate because “the marijuana industry is not a family friendly industry.”

Fine-Tuning Of Rules Eyed By King County Council

The King County Transportation Economy and Environment Committee is now considering two proposed ordinances.

One would require a land use permit for marijuana production and processing operations larger than 500 square feet. The other ordinance would set up a 1,000 foot buffer between pot shops and allow stores to use 3,000 square feet of space without needing a land use permit if the store also had a medical marijuana endorsement.

The committee will further discuss the ordinances at a meeting on June 16.

Striking A Balance In Bellevue

Some cities in the state have adopted similar regulations. The city of Bellevue requires a 1,000 foot buffer zone between marijuana stores. This rule prevented one retail store from opening in 2014 even though it had already obtained a license from the Liquor and Cannabis Board. Their location was too close to another pot store called Green Theory.

Despite these restrictions other Bellevue pot store owners like Chris McAboy believe “Bellevue has been really progressive” when it comes to its marijuana regulations. He owns the Novel Tree located in the northern part of the city.

Neighborhood residents “have been extremely welcoming,” he added.

Green Theory is located off Bellevue’s Main Street near a residential neighborhood. Numerous residents living near the store told Lens they’ve had no problems with it being close to them.

“It doesn’t smell here,” said Marina, who lives several hundred feet south of the store. “As long as it doesn’t smell in here I’m fine with that.”

Bellevue resident Jennifer Fowler also lives near Green Theory. The store’s proximity has never been an issue, she said.

“Everyone has really been nice,” she said.

Although people will sometimes smoke weed on the street by her place they’re mellower than drunks who used to hang around her street and trash a nearby empty apartment building, she added.

As local jurisdictions gain more authority to regulate, retail pot shop owners like McAboy believe fewer state restrictions are needed. He hopes the state will lift a ban on customers smoking cannabis on store premises.

Industry Association Wants To Build Trust

Washington CannaBusiness Association Executive Director Vicki Christophersen supports giving local jurisdictions more autonomy to set regulations. While they may not like the unnecessary restrictions on their industry that come as a result, it’s something they may have to accept for the time being until skeptics are won over, she added.

“We have to remember where society is,” she said. “We have to be thoughtful, disciplined and slow in the development of this (industry).”

At the same time, the state and local jurisdictions need to provide predictability for business owners by creating consistent, common sense regulations, said Baumgartner.

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