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Pierce County Weighs Ban On Marijuana Retail Stores

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Credit Flickr Photo/Neeta Lind

Washington state expects to license about 17 marijuana retail stores in unincorporated Pierce County, but a majority of the Pierce County Council supports measures to effectively ban the stores.

Tacoma attorney Jay Berneburg represents clients who operate medical marijuana dispensaries and want to apply for state licenses to grow and sell recreational marijuana. He said a ban would fly in the face of voter approval for legalization through Initiative 502.

“Our Pierce County Council responds by saying, ‘Actually we know more about it than you, and democracy doesn’t work, and you people don’t know what’s best for you, we do,’” Berneburg said.

I-502 received 54 percent of the vote in Pierce County. Councilmember Dan Roach, who supports the ban, said opposing a ballot initiative is not something he takes lightly.

“I am going against what the will of voters was for Initiative 502,” Roach said, but “the caveat is the people who elected me expect me to be able to understand the issue on a local level and how it’s implemented and make a good choice on that basis.”

Roach said he believes public support for marijuana legalization would weaken if people understood that local governments don’t get any of the taxes levied on marijuana. He said cities and counties will have to confront resulting problems with crime or impaired driving.

As I-502 is written, the proceeds from the 25 percent excise tax go to state agencies, universities and the state general fund. Candice Bock with the Association of Washington Cities said lobbying legislators to give some of that money to local governments is a priority in the next legislative session.

Bock said state regulators want local police departments to crack down on illicit marijuana operations to help the state framework succeed, "but we don’t have any additional resources to do that,” Bock said. “So we’re going to be spending this next coming session talking with legislators, with the state about the need to provide local governments with the resources.”

Pierce County isn’t alone in resisting I-502. Cities have passed moratoriums, but those are supposed to be temporary measures while they figure out how to zone and regulate marijuana businesses. Kent is one of them – Kent City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick noted that “no one wants to be first” when it comes to dealing with the new marijuana retail stores.

But Pierce County council member Rick Talbert said banning the stores could have its own negative consequences. He said the county will likely be the target of expensive lawsuits if it refuses to implement I-502. “If we go down that path, we’re going to end up spending a lot of money to end up where I’d like us to be right now and that is finding a way to do this in accordance with state law.”

Initiative 502 doesn’t include an opt-out provision for local governments. However, they can contest individual license applications because of concerns about the applicant or the business location.

Attorney Jay Berneburg said a council ban on 17 potential marijuana retail stores may not generate a huge outcry in Pierce County. But he said the real issue is, “is this a pretext for them to then go after medical marijuana?” If they do that, he said, “They are going to have a fight on their hands like they have never even imagined.” He said hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries have opened in Pierce County. Those could soon be subject to state regulations as well.

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