In an unannounced move, the Whatcom County Council voted unanimously to block new applications for marijuana businesses.
The 60-day moratorium, approved Tuesday night, Feb. 11, would temporarily halt any applications to the county for building improvements or other permits such businesses would require, regardless of whether the state has approved the business' license to grow, process or sell marijuana. It applies only to the unincorporated county and includes medical marijuana operations; proposed marijuana businesses in cities are not affected.
The council will work within the 60 days to set stricter rules for siting marijuana businesses.
Council members decided to revisit the county marijuana regulations after the state attorney general last month issued an opinion saying local jurisdictions could impose stricter limits, or even opt out of Initiative 502, the 2012 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana.
The council also was motivated by concerns from the Clearbrook community near Sumas. An application from an outfit called Delta#Nine indicates the business would grow and process marijuana within 500 feet of where 15 children live and play.
Sheriff Bill Elfo has said his agency cannot effectively patrol the remote area where Delta#Nine would operate. There are several applications filed with the state Liquor Control Board for marijuana businesses in the Acme area, which is also difficult to patrol effectively, county officials said.
The emergency moratorium, introduced by Executive Jack Louws at Tuesday's meeting, mentioned the crime threat.
"Marijuana related operations are vulnerable to robbery and crimes of violence, as evidenced by the actual robberies and violence that have occurred at state legal marijuana medical sites within Whatcom County and elsewhere," the ordinance said.
Council member Pete Kremen spoke in support of the moratorium.
"I think it protects the county not just from potential criminal activity, but it also protects the county in a way that keeps us on solid footing legally when we either approve or not approve certain applications," Kremen said.
Three tenant-improvement applications for marijuana businesses have already been submitted to the county, planning manager Tyler Schroeder said, and they would be processed under the current rules. Those businesses have not yet received a license to operate from the state. But any other applications would be blocked for now.
The council never set rules specific to incoming marijuana businesses, upon advice from the county prosecutor to treat the growing or processing of marijuana as an agricultural use.