By Michelle Dupler for TCAJOB
Washington state is considering hundreds of applications for businesses who want to become licensed to produce, process or sell marijuana.
But while those businesses may soon be setting up shop in places like Seattle, there won’t be any in the Tri-Cities — at least not for awhile.
Officials in Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and West Richland all have adopted moratoriums on marijuana businesses while some uncertainties linger about the new law allowing use, production and sale of small amounts of recreational pot.
“First and foremost there is a contradiction between the new Washington state law and the federal Controlled Substances Act,” said Rick White, Pasco’s community and economic development director. “It’s still illegal (federally). … Then there’s the more practical consideration of how does one go about allowing a previously illegal use to become legal.”
Washington and Colorado, became the first states in the nation to allow legal use of limited quantities of recreational pot when voters approved separate statewide measures in November of last year. In Washington, voters approved Initiative 502 in November 2012 by a margin of 56 to 44 percent — but the measure failed in both Benton and Franklin counties.
The initiative legalized personal possession and use of up to 1 ounce of marijuana by adults age 21 and over, and included provisions for the state to create a system of licensing, regulating and taxing production and sale of the drug.
The state’s Liquor Control Board will issue the licenses in a process similar to how alcohol licenses are approved, according to a fact sheet on the board’s website.
The board also will collect the 25 percent tax on production, processing and sales and deposit the revenue into a dedicated fund.
The law caps the number of retail outlets per county that can sell marijuana based on population. Data from the state Liquor Control Board show Benton County could have a maximum of 10 retail locations and Franklin County could have up to five.
Department of Revenue spokeswoman Beverly Crichfield said license applications are being taken through the state’s Business Licensing Service run by the revenue department, and then processed by the Liquor Control Board. The department began accepting applications online on Nov. 18. The deadline to submit applications is Dec. 19.
Within two days after opening the door for applications for producers, processors and retailers, the department had received nearly 600 applications statewide, according to the Department of Revenue.
But the law also allowed local jurisdictions to put a hold on implementing the law while they figured out their own logistics.
That includes not only trying to reconcile conflicting state and federal law, but hashing out land use and zoning for cannabis production, processing and sales, and getting questions answered about just how much leeway cities and counties have to regulate marijuana businesses within their own boundaries.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Washington officials in August that the federal government wouldn’t pre-empt implementation of the state’s marijuana legalization law. However, a news release from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the federal government is continuing to enforce certain aspects of the Controlled Substances Act, including preventing distribution to minors and ensuring that pot grown in Washington doesn’t leave the state.
White noted there was a recent rash of arrests in Colorado that show the federal government still takes enforcement of national marijuana laws seriously.
“That emphasizes the built-in conflict,” he said.
The Pasco council adopted a moratorium in September that lasts until September 2014. White said the city right now is in a holding pattern while officials collect information.
One piece of information is an opinion pending by Ferguson on the extent of local agency’s authority over marijuana zoning and land use laws.
“In a nutshell, the question is, ‘Are we pre-empted from establishing zoning controls?’” White said.
There’s also the matter of keeping marijuana away from schools. The initiative includes a 1,000-foot buffer zone between schools and any marijuana business, but local government officials want to know if they can increase that, White said.
Kennewick spokeswoman Evelyn Lusignan said the primary reason behind the Kennewick council’s adoption of a six-month moratorium in October was to take time to work out zoning rules.
“The purpose of the moratorium is to allow staff time to review appropriate zoning and business regulations to address the impacts of marijuana businesses locating within the City of Kennewick,” Lusignan said. “The City of Kennewick currently has no zoning or business regulations regarding marijuana production, processing or retail sales.”
West Richland Mayor Donna Noski said her city adopted a six-month moratorium in October. Richland also has a six-month moratorium in place.