Politics & Government

Competing plans would relax, increase rules on where pot businesses can locate

State lawmakers want to stop 25,000-square-foot marijuana grow operations from popping up in residential neighborhoods – but at the same time, they want to make it easier for pot shops to locate in densely packed cities.

It’s a seemingly contradictory position lawmakers have found themselves in as they seek to refine Initiative 502, which voters approved in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana use.

Some legislators are seeking to ban marijuana producers and processors from locating in residential areas, while others want to relax the rules that prohibit marijuana businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, park, library, transit center or arcade.

Both sets of changes may have a shot at passing this year, say lawmakers working on marijuana policies in the House and Senate.

“What we’re finding is the needs differ significantly from city situations to rural situations,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center who is the Senate’s lead on marijuana policy. “What we’re trying to do is create a system that is respectful of where people are and where they live, and how we allow production, processing and actual retail sales to occur.”

In some urban areas, for instance, it can be hard to find a place to locate a marijuana retail shop that isn’t within 1,000 feet of a park, school, library or other restricted location, said state Rep. Chris Hurst, an Enumclaw Democrat who chairs the House committee dealing with marijuana policy.

Hurst said he would like to let local governments choose whether marijuana businesses can locate closer to some places that are now subject to the buffer requirement.

Under Hurst’s plan, the 1,000-foot buffer rule would still apply to schools, but cities and counties would be allowed to set shorter distances between marijuana businesses and other kid-friendly areas such as arcades, libraries and parks. Rivers has suggested a similar policy change in the Senate.

“There’s always going to be a park or an arcade somewhere,” Hurst said. “If you’re trying to get rid of the illegal market, then you have to allow the legal shops, or else it’s never going to work.”

Meanwhile, some lawmakers that hail from rural areas say that large-scale growing and processing operations are showing up in residential areas where they shouldn’t be allowed.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said that’s what’s happening in his district. He said in some cases, children are playing on the opposite side of a fence from a high-security growing or processing operation that “looks like a miniature prison.”

Kristiansen said he and many other lawmakers support a measure that would ban marijuana growers and processors in areas that are zoned exclusively for residential use. Senate Bill 5130 would also prohibit processors or growers from locating in areas that have rural zoning designations and are five acres or larger.

"We want to make kind of a statement that hey, this wasn’t the intent to have them out in the neighborhoods,” Kristiansen said.

At the same time, Kristiansen said, he doesn’t see a problem with letting cities and counties get rid of the 1,000-foot-buffer rule, if they so choose.

“Giving them a bit more opportunity, especially when you get into those urban areas, I think is fine,” Kristiansen said.

Hurst said that the strict buffer requirements are part of the reason why pot businesses are being driven into residential areas. He said he would only want to see the Legislature ban pot producers from neighborhoods if it also gives cities more freedom about where else the businesses can locate.

“You have to give the cities more flexibility to put those in the commercial areas, so they have some place to go,” Hurst said.