Whatcom County grapples with new marijuana rules

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 27, 2013 

It will be legal in a few months to grow, process and sell recreational marijuana in Washington, and Whatcom County officials have no answers yet for people who want to build pot-based businesses.

Entrepreneurs looking into the new opportunity say they haven't gotten clear direction from county Planning and Development Services, and the county needs to set up rules soon.

Ryan Moore of Bellingham said he inquired two weeks ago about growing marijuana in greenhouses on agricultural land. A planning official told him the county isn't going to process building applications until the state's rules governing marijuana are in place, Moore said. The state rules should be completed by Aug. 14.

But County Prosecutor Dave McEachran, who has been advising the planning department on marijuana applications, said the department isn't putting a hold on applications. Planning officials don't even look at what crop will be grown when a new farm applies for a building permit, he said.

Legally, however, the county is in an awkward position.

For now, recreational marijuana is still illegal under state law. And for the foreseeable future, the drug will be illegal at the federal level. Federal agents have a history of raiding Washington medical marijuana dispensaries, including at least three on Wednesday, July 24, in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia, The Tacoma News Tribune reported.

The state Liquor Control Board won't issue marijuana licenses until Dec. 1, according to the agency's website. That puts anyone seeking a building permit now for a marijuana business under some suspicion. McEachran said he wants to be told whenever an application for a marijuana business comes into the planning department.

"Until they get the (state) rules, they're running the cart before the horse," McEachran said Friday, July 26.

Even so, McEachran said, as long as people operate legally under a state license, such businesses are of no concern to his office.

"I think those people are still going to have to be concerned with federal law," he said.

The County Council likely will establish rules for where marijuana can be grown or sold. It will place restrictions on the businesses, possibly including odor control. If the rules are developed through the normal zoning update process, they wouldn't be in place for more than a year.

For a business to obtain a state license, however, the county is going to have to act in the next few weeks, Moore said. To get a state license during the Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 application period, a business owner must cite a specific location. Without zoning rules, the owner can't name a location with confidence.

A Liquor Control Board spokesman said Moore's dilemma comes with the new territory of recreational marijuana, which was legalized by the passage of Initiative 502 in November 2012.

"He's going to have to work that out at the local level," said board spokesman Brian Smith. "We understand it's going to be very bumpy at that level."

"Everybody's navigating roads that are now being built," Smith said. "There are some areas where some cities have been very proactive in zoning. ... Others have been in wait-and-see mode."

Moore appealed to the council to take quick action. Before doing anything, the council will hear from McEachran and Sheriff Bill Elfo about marijuana at its Aug. 6 meetings.

The city of Bellingham handled the uncertainty surrounding recreational marijuana by placing a one-year moratorium on permits for cannabis businesses, before any applications came in. The County Council has given no signal yet whether it intends to enact a similar moratorium.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2289. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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