Legislators look to end municipal marijuana bans, moratoriums

By John Stang for TCAJOB

Benton and Franklin counties could find their bans and moratoriums on selling retail marijuana revoked in 2017.

Just before the end of the 2016 legislative session, Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, and Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, introduced a bill to require counties and cities to lift their bans and moratoriums on the retail sale of marijuana.

Unless the bill finds its way into the Legislature’s final budget bill by Mar. 10, it will be on the legislative docket in 2017. Hurst is chairman of the House Commerce & Gaming Committee, which handles marijuana issues in the House. Condotta is the committee’s ranking Republican.

Marijuana can be grown, processed and sold in many Washington cities and counties. And many cities and counties have voted to ban those activities —creating a patchwork of where selling marijuana is legal and illegal across the state. Hurst’s and Condotta’s bill would forbid bans on retail shops, but would allow bans on processors and growers.

Benton County has a moratorium on allowing new retail pot dealers. Franklin County, Pasco, Kennewick, Richland and West Richland have outright bans on growing, processing and selling marijuana.

Two teen boys allegedly killing a third teen boy over pot in February in Federal Way— which bans marijuana  — helped prompt Hurst’s and Condotta’s bill. They contend that a city or county banning retail marijuana does not stop pot-related crime, while simultaneously providing more of a market for illegal marijuana. Since about 65 percent of Washington’s marijuana is sold illegally, adding stores helps cut down on illegal traffic, they said.

“It feels like people are closing their eyes and saying marijuana doesn’t exist because we have a ban or a moratorium,” said Hurst at a Mar. 2 committee hearing on the bill.

Marijuana interests supported the bill at the hearing, while the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington Association of Counties opposed it.

“We think these bans are not creating a significant access problem,” said Candice Bock, of the Association of Washington Cities.

The year 2015 saw a major overhaul of the state’s recreational marijuana system — combining it regulation-wise with the state’s medical marijuana system, plus improving on a business system that has never been tried before. Colorado’s and Washington’s voters approved recreational pot in 2012, and the two states have been laboratories for building regulatory and business models for the industry ever since.

“Last year, we did the heavy lifting. This year, we’re just tweaking it,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

Rivers is a conservative Republican from a conservative southwestern Washington district. Rivers and the majority of her constituents voted against legalizing recreational pot in 2012.

For a while, liberal Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and moderate former police officer Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, were the point people when it came to marijuana matters in the Legislature. However, Kohl-Welles retired from the Senate last year for a successful run at the King County Council.

Meanwhile, the Senate GOP caucus picked Rivers in 2014 to be its point person on marijuana issues. She had to learn the subject from scratch, and became fascinated with creating new business and regulatory systems from nothing.  She became one of the architects of most of 2015’s major marijuana legislation.

The Tri-Cities is the biggest metro area in Washington where retail marijuana is not allowed.

The state recorded almost $260 million in retail marijuana sales from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, with $64.9 million of that going to the state in taxes. During that same period, Benton County’s shops recorded $5.1 million in sales with almost $1.3 million going to the state in taxes. Franklin County tallied $154,453 in sales with $38,613 going to the state in taxes. Pasco has a retailer that had a state license but no local license. It opened and closed quickly in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is fine-tuning how to regulate the state’s marijuana businesses this session.

A bill introduced by Rivers would allow marijuana growers, processors and retailers to link to each other’s websites and to produce brochures relating to tourism in Washington in ways similar to the liquor industry. It would also allow pot growers and processors to provide promotional items of small value to retailers in ways similar to liquor businesses. The Senate passed this bill 36-13 with Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick and Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, in the majority. The House passed the bill 72-25, with Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland and Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, voting in favor of the bill.

Another bill by Rivers would make certain information about marijuana retailers filed with the Washington State Liquor & Cannabis Board confidential, like bank records, retirement account information, security information, and anything addressing how the marijuana is transported.

Senate passed the bill 42-6, and it is working its way through the House. Brown and Hewitt voted in favor of the bill. It is awaiting a House vote.

A similar bill introduced by Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, passed the House 89-8. Reps. Walsh and Terry Nealey backed the bill. The Senate approved the bill, by a vote of 43-3, with the support of Brown and Hewitt.

A bill by Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, would allow licensed marijuana producers to grow marijuana plants for sale to medical marijuana cooperatives. It would also require all plants grown by medical marijuana cooperatives to be bought either from licensed marijuana producers or cloned from plants bought from a licensed producer. Currently, patients and cooperatives have no legal way of acquiring plants because marijuana producers may not sell plants on the retail market.

The House passed this bill 93-5, with Haler and Klippert opposing it. Walsh and Nealey supported it. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 39-8, with Hewitt and Brown in the majority.

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