Pierce County bans marijuana businesses from rural areas

Ordinance prohibits pot businesses until Congress removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances

THE NEWS TRIBUNE (TACOMA)December 11, 2013 

The Pierce County Council narrowly voted Tuesday to override county Executive Pat McCarthy’s veto of the council’s marijuana ordinance. The decision means the county has indefinitely banned recreational pot businesses from unincorporated areas, even if they’re granted a state license.

The council needed five votes to overturn the veto. Councilman Doug Richardson, who had pushed to extend the current moratorium on marijuana businesses, provided the swing vote.

Richardson, R-Lakewood, said he gave way after the council discussed attempting new proposals that “morphed back into” the original ordinance. He also said he wanted a law in place before the moratorium expires Jan. 2.

The ordinance prohibits licensed marijuana businesses from operating until Congress removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances.

McCarthy called that requirement “ostensibly a ban.”

She said the ordinance conflicts with state law, which the council is obligated to follow. Washington voters approved Initiative 502 last year, legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

In a letter announcing her veto last month, McCarthy said she has concerns about legal risks the council’s ordinance poses. She urged the council to “approve clear and well-defined zoning regulations that protect our neighborhoods.”

The ordinance becomes law Dec. 20.

The vote Tuesday was 5-2 with the council’s Republican majority ruling. Voting yes were: Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor; Jim McCune, R-Graham; Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup; Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake; and Richardson. Voting no were: Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert, both Tacoma Democrats.

McCarthy, a Democrat, has vetoed the County Council five times since taking office in 2009. The council has overridden three of those vetoes.

The ordinance sets up zoning of production and processing operations, but limits retail outlets to urban areas. It also restricts retail sales businesses to a single building, prohibiting them in strip malls.

But none of those businesses could operate with county approval until Congress takes marijuana off the controlled-substance list.

The council adopted the ordinance Nov. 5 by a vote of 4-3, with Richardson voting no. McCarthy issued her veto in late November. Overriding her veto required a supermajority of five votes.

McCarthy said through a spokesman Tuesday that both she and the council carried out their authority under the county charter.

“As I stated in my veto message, I share the County Council’s concerns about voters’ decision to legalize marijuana, which was overwhelmingly approved in Pierce County,” McCarthy said. “I vetoed the ordinance due to concern regarding the legal risk to the county, and because the state has signaled its intent to issue licenses anyway.”

The division among Pierce County officials contrasts sharply with King County.

The Metropolitan King County Council on Monday unanimously adopted legislation modifying building codes and development regulations for the siting of licensed recreational marijuana businesses.

The state Liquor Control Board says it will start issuing licenses for marijuana businesses sometime in March.

The Liquor Board says there’s nothing in I-502 that allows for a ban.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is expected to issue an opinion in the next few weeks on whether local governments can ban or enact de facto bans on pot businesses.

Council attorney Susan Long has said the county could cite and shut down marijuana businesses that violate county code.

Talbert said Tuesday the ordinance “puts Pierce County in a very precarious position legally.”

“I think it puts the citizens of Pierce County at extreme risk financially because we will be sued,” he said.

The ordinance means recreational pot will be illegal for the foreseeable future in unincorporated Pierce County, but not in every city and town. The Tacoma City Council, for example, adopted interim rules last month that allow for marijuana operations in certain zones.

But the state has set aside the largest number of licenses for marijuana retailers in unincorporated Pierce County -- as many as 17.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@thenewstribune.com @TNTstevemaynard

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