Legal landscape still uncertain
By Marcy Stamper
In the first major roll-out in the country of a system for legal access to recreational marijuana, approaches in Okanogan County and its cities and towns range from accommodating and systematic to wary to officially unwelcoming.
Nevertheless, in just 12 days, Washington will begin accepting license applications from people who want to grow, process or sell recreational marijuana.
Okanogan County commissioners have directed the county’s planning staff to prepare a revised draft of the county’s zoning code so that a conditional-use permit would be required for any marijuana business.
Conditional-use permits require notification of adjacent landowners, a detailed project description, a completed questionnaire about environmental impact, and a public hearing. The proposed changes would apply in unincorporated areas of the county.
Winthrop will treat applications for marijuana operations as it does any other business, and will be willing to issue a license if the applicant meets all requirements, according to Winthrop Town Planner Rocklynn Culp. “We’ve got a provision in our code for retail uses similar to those currently allowed, such as a liquor store,” she said.
While some communities have adopted a moratorium to study the new law and others are proactively zoning to accommodate marijuana businesses, Winthrop is taking no special action, said Culp. “If someone applies, my direction is to treat it like I would any other retail use that doesn’t fit into our current use chart,” said Culp.
Culp said Winthrop had received one informal inquiry about a marijuana license and provided the individual with a map showing the few sites in town where a business could locate. Because marijuana businesses cannot be within a 1,000-foot radius of a school, playground, child-care center or library, there are very few options in town for a retail operation, said Culp. A processing operation could potentially set up in the town’s industrial zone, but Culp said producing marijuana is probably too land-intensive to be practical in the town.
Twisp also has a map showing the relatively few areas that meet the required 1,000-foot buffer for a marijuana business, according to Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. Twisp will approach applications from a land-use perspective and apply existing zoning codes, she said.
Five stores for county
When the Washington State Liquor Control Board allocated retail outlets for marijuana across the state based on population, Okanogan County was granted five, with one store specifically allotted to Omak. Although Omak has changed its zoning ordinance to prohibit any land use that would violate federal, state or local laws – effectively banning any marijuana business in the city limits – the Liquor Board will not assign the retail locations to other areas, according to Brian Smith, spokesperson for the Liquor Control Board.
“Nothing in 502 [the voter-approved initiative that legalized recreational marijuana last year] allows a community to opt out – it’s a state law,” said Smith. “We’re not going to stop someone from receiving a state license if they meet our criteria.”
A training seminar held by the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) noted that if a jurisdiction defers to federal law and prohibits all marijuana businesses, the jurisdiction could be sued by a person with a state-issued marijuana license who is denied the opportunity to conduct business there.
On the other hand, jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses could theoretically face legal action by the federal government for facilitating illegal drug activities, according to the AWC. Nevertheless, the AWC considers prosecution of local officials unlikely and says that any such litigation would most likely be directed against the state Liquor Control Board.
“It’s a precarious situation for local entities because of the difference between state and federal laws,” said Ing-Moody. “It’s a pretty complex subject with a lot of unknowns.”
“It’s going to be really interesting – whether the first lawsuits will be over prohibiting marijuana businesses or for allowing them,” said Culp.
Streamlined zoning; banning pot
The Wenatchee City Council voted late last month against an ordinance that would have exempted marijuana businesses from a requirement that all city businesses comply with federal laws, essentially prohibiting marijuana businesses in Wenatchee. East Wenatchee set a six-month moratorium in August to allow further research.
Douglas County has authorized the growing of marijuana in agricultural zones and is permitting retail sales in commercial districts and potentially through fruit stands. Seattle has clarified its zoning to include marijuana and Spokane has added marijuana businesses to its municipal code.
In August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidance about the federal government’s policy on marijuana in Washington and Colorado, where voters also legalized recreational use. Holder said the federal government will concentrate its resources on preventing distribution to minors, preventing marijuana from being diverted to states where it is illegal, and preventing violence in conjunction with marijuana cultivation and distribution.
Holder’s memo has been interpreted as allowing states to devise their own enforcement systems. “After a great deal of waiting and watching, the federal government announced that it will not try to block Washington or Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws,” wrote the AWC.
“One of our charges is to minimize the illegal market for marijuana, so we need outlets for legal purchases so that people won’t purchase on the illegal market,” said Smith.
Deadlines coming up
The Liquor Control Board opens the 30-day period for accepting applications for all marijuana-related businesses starting Monday, Nov. 18. There is no specific timeline for issuing the licenses, but the Liquor Board estimates that the first licenses will be ready in February or March and the first retail stores will open in late May or June, said Smith.
People may comment on Okanogan County’s proposal to require a conditional-use permit for growing, processing or selling marijuana, and on the possible environmental impacts of such activities, through Wednesday, Nov. 13. The county has found that the proposed zoning changes would have no significant environmental impacts. Impacts to specific areas or from specific activities would be addressed during the conditional-use permit process, they said.
People may also testify on the proposed changes at the public hearing before the Okanogan County planning commission on Monday, Nov. 25, at 7 p.m. in Okanogan. The county commissioners will make the final decision on the zoning changes.
For more information or a copy of the revised zoning code, contact senior planner Ben Rough at (509) 422-7122 or email@example.com.