Marijuana, again.

We’re talking about Marijuana, again? Yes, we are.

Why? It’s complicated.

Background: This story starts in 2012, when Washington voters approved Initiative 502 which legalized the recreational use of marijuana under state law.  This was a groundbreaking moment, as Washington became one of the first two states in the nation to take such a major step back from the war on drugs.  Because this was done by an initiative to the voters, the initial law was a broad-stroke policy statement that left many, many of the details of implementation to be determined later.  The job of making legalization a reality has fallen largely to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board and local governments like cities and counties.

As the local government for unincorporated King County, we are responsible to set land use and permitting rules that establish where and how marijuana businesses can operate.  The County’s rules apply only to the unincorporated area and do not affect cities, such as Bellevue, Redmond or Seattle. King County first adopted marijuana-related regulations in late 2013, not long after the Liquor and Cannabis Board announced its initial rules.  Since then, the new marijuana market has begun to emerge, and evolve.  We have begun to learn about what is and isn’t working in this new and emerging market.

Earlier this year, after receiving a number of complaints from residents in both the rural and urban portions of unincorporated King County, the Council decided to enact a brief moratorium, calling a “time out” on the establishment of new marijuana businesses so that we could review our land use and permitting regulations and adjust them as needed to address the emerging marijuana market.  Two primary challenges appeared — Rural residents were seeing the opening of marijuana producer/processor businesses, many of which are largely industrial in nature, alongside residential neighborhoods and reporting problems with odor, light from required security systems and concerns about possible crime.  Residents of urban unincorporated areas also expressed concerns about clustering of a disproportionate number of marijuana retail storefronts in small areas such as Skyway and White Center. At the same time, changes in the state law folded the 18-year-old medical marijuana system into the recreational system, resulting in closure of all of the medical marijuana dispensaries and challenges for medical marijuana patients in obtaining their needed supplies.

My principles: As we look to update our regulations to address the inevitable growing pains of implementing marijuana legalization, I have used the following principles:

  • My job as a representative is to implement the will of the voters when they passed I-502 legalizing marijuana.  I support allowing and regulating marijuana uses, and oppose using land use regulations as a back-door way of banning marijuana.  Our goal should be to allow a viable marijuana market and ultimately replace the illicit market in marijuana.
  • Land use regulations and permitting requirements should
    • allow for a fair share of land to be available in unincorporated King County so that we are doing our part to achieve the goal of I-502;
    • avoid foreseeable conflicts by keeping incompatible types of uses separate; and
    • be fair and avoid putting an undue burden on any one group or part of the county.
  • Where possible, we should mitigate the impacts to medical marijuana patients because of the recent closure of dispensaries.
  • I generally support incremental changes because I believe they are most likely to be effective and accepted by the communities we serve.
  • We can and should update our land use regulations over time to adjust to change.  This will not be the last word on marijuana and land use in our county.

What we are doing:  The County Council passed legislation to address the growing pains of this emerging new market.  It was a comprehensive look at both retail and production and processing of marijuana, including:

  • We established 1,000 foot buffers between retail stores to limit clustering;
  • We excluded new processors and producers from the most residential sections of the rural area, specifically the RA 2.5 and RA 5 zones;
  • Where marijuana producing and processing is allowed in the rural area we increased setbacks to limit the impact on any neighboring residences;
  • We allowed marijuana retailers, producers and processors who had completed most of the work to open a new business to proceed under the old rules for a brief period of time, so owners who had followed the rules and invested time and money would not lose their investment due to the unannounced moratorium and Council action;
  • We expressed the Council’s intent to disperse retail stores in the unincorporated area, particularly to serve medical user needs, and directed the Executive to complete a study and identify the most appropriate places for expansion by the end of the year;
  • We also asked the Executive to take a holistic look at the marijuana industry and its effects on residents in King County, which we expect to receive at the end of 2018.

On the whole, I think this is a balanced approach that starts the County on the path toward increasing access to legal marijuana while mitigating the impacts of the emerging new industry on residents in unincorporated King County.

In closing: This has been a challenging but ultimately enlightening process.  I have appreciated the passionate input from many community members throughout King County, who have brought a wide variety of experiences and interests to this discussion.  I have been most heartened by the way our Council has approached this work — bringing knowledge and expertise to bear, keeping principles at the forefront, listening carefully to the community and one another, addressing strong and sometimes contradictory interests, and most of all being willing to work together and compromise to get to a final result that achieves results for our constituents.  As a new council member, and the person who worked to bring the final ordinance together by offering consolidated amendments and working with my colleagues, I am proud that we have come to this decision together today.  It is not the end of this story, but it is a step in the right direction.

Additional information and resources:

Seattle Times “King County lifts moratorium on legal pot businesses”