Washington cities slow to implement legal marijuana

Though Washington voters approved growing and selling recreational marijuana, few cities have taken steps to implement the law.

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SEATTLE — Sales of recreational marijuana are due to start in Washington around late spring, but there’s no welcome mat — at least not yet — for pot businesses in dozens of cities around the state.

A new Seattle-based marijuana think tank called The Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy surveyed the 75 most populous cities in Washington to look at how local governments are handling Washington’s legal pot law, Initiative 502.

The survey found that a few cities, including Lakewood, Wenatchee and SeaTac — have effectively banned or threatened to ban pot businesses until the drug is legalized federally, and just under three dozen, ranging from Redmond to Pullman, have imposed moratoriums of six months to one year.

Officials in about two dozen cities, including Walla Walla and Waitsburg, have passed zoning rules dictating where the pot shops, gardens and processing facilities can open, and 14 of the cities had taken no action. Walla Walla County and College Place have moratoriums in place.

Brian Smith, a spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board, said he expects more cities to lift their moratoriums over the next few months.

“What we heard from many of the cities and local governments was that they needed a little time to prepare for what the implementation of I-502 means at the local level,” he said. “Those that have a ban in place run the risk of litigation. We’ve heard from people who say they’ll sue if they’re denied the ability to do business.”

The Liquor Control Board has worried that bans and moratoriums could create access problems in some communities that will make it difficult to channel marijuana users away from the black market and into the regulated, taxed one.

It has asked the state attorney general for a legal opinion on whether cities and counties have the authority to bar the businesses from opening. Meanwhile, medical marijuana advocates are challenging Kent’s collective garden ban in state courts.

The board has so far processed nearly 5,000 applications for licenses to grow, process or sell marijuana, and many of those applications are in jurisdictions that have moratoriums in place.

Drew Matthews, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, said there seemed to be mixed motives for the moratoriums.

“There are a lot of cities that really do want to make this work and feel overwhelmed by the prosect of implementing it, while others are really just trying to play out the clock, so to speak, and keep passing moratiums until the problem goes away and people stop applying in their jurisdiction,” he said.

Candice Bock of the Association of Washington Cities said she too expects to see some of the moratoriums lifted.

“It’s just the first step in a process to come up with something that’s going to be a long-term plan for regulation,” she said. “City officials tend to be cautious.”

Union-Bulletin reporter Andy Porter contributed to this report.

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