Pierce County will start shutting down unregulated pot dispensaries in a year

Cannabis plants are kept in storage areas at a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Olympia. In Pierce County, officials are warning dispensaries to obtain licenses or cease sales.
Cannabis plants are kept in storage areas at a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Olympia. In Pierce County, officials are warning dispensaries to obtain licenses or cease sales. Staff photographer

Pierce County has drawn a line in the sand for unlicensed medical-marijuana operations amid changes in state law: Dispensaries must obtain licenses or cease sales.

If they fail to do either by next summer, the county will not let them stay open.

“If you don’t have a license by July 1, 2016, we will shut you down,” said Al Rose, executive director of justice services. “We believe it’s a very clear line.”

Recreational stores also are subject to the deadline, though there are no unlicensed retailers currently operating in Pierce County.

“We don’t care what kind of marijuana it is,” Rose said, stressing that licenses are required across the board. “But we haven’t had an issue with people selling recreational marijuana without a license.”

The county announced the enforcement deadline for unincorporated areas on Monday. It’s a product of sweeping changes in state marijuana law passed by the Legislature in April.

Senate Bill 5052 reconciled unregulated dispensaries and the regulated recreational market, created by voter-approved Initiative 502 in 2012, under one unified regulatory system.

All collective gardens will have to close under the new law, though limited pot-growing cooperatives are allowed. But dispensaries will have the opportunity to seek a state license.

Rose said the changes in state law eliminated the gray area that existed for years after medical-marijuana became legal in Washington in the late 1990s.

“If you sell marijuana, you need a state license. Period,” he said. “We’re going to enforce it now that they’ve given us the ability to do it.”

Dispensaries already have started receiving letters about the enforcement deadline. A county database shows more than 60 medical-marijuana operations are located in unincorporated Pierce County, a majority of which are dispensaries.

Rose said the enforcement letters won’t be sent to the county’s few recreational cannabis shops, since they already are licensed by the state.

Monday’s announcement noted that Pierce County intends to work with businesses that are interested in following state law.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said in a news release that “it is our sincerest desire to work closely with these businesses in order to assist their compliance with the law. They’ve got plenty of time, and county resources are available to help them transition through this fledgling period.”

Still, unlicensed dispensaries will face the same hurdle that licensed businesses already face in Pierce County: securing a conditional use permit.

County code requires licensed marijuana businesses to apply for one and go through the public process with the hearing examiner.

But there’s a caveat in the code that states no application will be approved until marijuana is decriminalized by the federal government. That means marijuana businesses are essentially banned in unincorporated Pierce County.

Rose stressed that marijuana retailers could challenge that provision before the hearing examiner, as a Parkland-based recreational shop called The Gallery is already doing.

Three of seven Pierce County Council members took a committee vote in May supporting a measure that would repeal the marijuana ban. A full council vote is expected in August.

Meantime, Rose said the county won’t shutter marijuana businesses while they work toward compliance through the public process.

The July 2016 deadline gives dispensaries plenty of time to achieve compliance, he added, while the county continues to navigate the evolving marijuana marketplace.

“It’s a different world we are in,” Rose said.