Washington State voters overwhelmingly approved a legal cannabis industry last November, yet many cities and counties have since enacted moratoriums on pot businesses. City councils in Olympia, Kent, Sammamish, Puyallup, University Place, Sunnyside, Pacific, East Wenatchee, Mill Creek, Longview, and Millwood have enacted moratoriums, as have the councils in Clark, Pierce, and Yakima Counties.
Council members say they fear the Feds will prosecute government employees who issue permits to pot shops. But this seems irrational. The federal government has never done this once in more than 15 years of locally licensed medical cannabis providers. And last month, the US Department of Justice went on the record saying it won't interfere in legal pot experiments in Washington and Colorado. The justification for the local moratoriums looks like a charade, an attempt by politicians to nullify the will of the voters.
And they could get cities in trouble. While temporary moratoriums "are fine" while the state hashes out rules for the marijuana industry, according to Alison Holcomb, the ACLU lawyer who drafted the pot initiative, local governments will wade into legally dangerous waters if they try banning businesses outright. "Permanent bans invite expensive litigation," she cautions. If an applicant receives a state license for a pot business but is denied a permit locally, based on such a ban, the person can sue under the new state law. She adds that state attorney general Bob Ferguson "has made it clear he is ready to defend the law."
The state needs to intervene now. The liquor board should proactively engage uncertain city councils like this: (1) Explain cannabis zoning issues, such as keeping pot shops 1,000 feet from schools, (2) remind them that state law preempts cities from opting out of Initiative 502, and (3) tell them to act quickly. The Association of Washington Cities, a quasi-governmental agency, should advocate the same points.
The war is over, and cannabis won. Cities and counties need to recognize this and stop allowing their small-time politics to stand in the way of pot progress.