I just got a new map from the city's Department of Planning and Development showing that even though marijuana retail stores are supposed to be legal in Seattle by year's end, there are few locations where you could realistically open one—almost all of them impractical.
Initiative 502 legalized marijuana possession and tasked the state with issuing licenses to growers, processors, and sellers. And as written, I-502 bans marijuana retail storefronts within 1,000 feet of the perimeter of certain properties, including parks, schools, arcades, libraries, community centers, and even public transit centers. The city has proposed its own restrictions on where marijuana outlets can open their doors (such as banning them on blocks zoned strictly for single-family houses). What happens when you overlay the state's and city's restrictions? There's almost no place in Seattle where you could actually set up a pot store:
The yellow areas show where retail outlets are "potentially allowed." Even these are largely industrial lands and locations where there's no actual storefronts to rent (e.g, the shipyards of Harbor Island, the landing strip at Boeing Field, and one block along a residential arterial in Ballard called Seaview Avenue Northwest). The rest of the map is out of bounds. (Here is a larger .pdf of the map.)
This is zoning at its most backwards. The locations where most people would actually want to buy marijuana are the same places where marijuana stores will be prohibited. Seattle is the most dense, populous city in the state and, thusly, where we'll see the greatest demand for pot. But because we have parks and libraries and transit tunnels all over the place, almost the entire city is off limits. Zooming in closer, as this map illustrates, the most populous, dense neighborhoods in the city—like Belltown and Capitol Hill—have zero yellow zones to buy cannabis. Considering that the goal of I-502 was to undercut the black market with accessible legal pot, it's unfortunate that black market pot dealers could remain preferable to largely inaccessible legal stores.
So why was the initiative written this way?
"The federal government has made it clear that locating marijuana storefronts within 1,000 feet of locations frequented by minors is a major concern," says Alison Holcomb, who wrote the ballot measure and led the I-502 campaign called New Approach Washington. (And she's absolutely correct here—the feds have cracked down on medical pot dispensaries in these areas. It was primarily important to pass I-502, break through the wall of prohibition, and work out the details later.) "In drafting Initiative 502, a primary goal was minimizing friction with federal marijuana enforcement policy to maximize the possibility of actual implementation," she says. "A whole range of issues undoubtedly will need to be revisited down the road, but getting stores open is a bigger priority than making them convenient."
But the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which is fleshing out rules for licenses, can't tweak these zoning rules because they were affixed by statute. "It would take a two-thirds vote of the legislature to change that map," says liquor board member Chris Marr. He says the a priority of I-502 is safety, not convenience. A final map will be considered by the board, he says, and while it may "shrink down" the number of locations cannabis stores could be allowed in Seattle, the board "can't expand it."
Given that a two-thirds vote of the legislature typically requires an act of god (especially to loosen a pot initiative), this map is what we have to work with.
Kimberly Mills from the Seattle City Attorney's Office also points out that this map "can really only be used for general information purposes only. Each site will have to be independently investigated by the appropriate professionals." (We've seen similar maps before, but not from the city land-use planners.)
So what will happen if the licensing proceeds as planned by December? There are a few pockets where the stores can open, and I am confident some determined entrepreneurs will snatch them up (such as 23rd and Union in the Central District and a slice of Aurora Avenue). To the extent that these stores can find a location that (a) is legal and (b) has a viable retail rental front, they will undoubtedly cluster in high densities along arterials in largely residential neighborhoods, essentially creating a few small marijuana districts. That is, areas stuffed with highly desirable product, people walking in and out with bags of pot, and—because banks won't hold marijuana business money due to federal insurance rules—hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash sitting behind the counter.
Which would make for some pretty obvious crime targets. That could show the claims that these zoning rules promote safety are, well, unconvincing. Moreover, I can't imagine any neighborhood group would welcome a dozen pot stores down the block, either, and could push the stores farther into the city's nether-regions or outside the city completely. As Jane Jacobs's authoritative book on contemporary urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, reminds us, few variables make a place safer than eyes on the street. Just like bars, marijuana stores would be safer in busy commercial areas—the customers, providers, the cops—than as sitting ducks in a no-man's land.
If the goal of I-502 is to provide a workable model for marijuana sales, this isn't it. Staying clear of the feds is smart, at least initially, and the drafters had to do what they had to do in order to pass the initiative. But now I-502 is passed and the feds are focused on the less superficial aspects of the initiative. I'm pretty certain that the feds don't care about keeping the stores away from transit centers; they care about keeping it away from schools, probably, and stopping pot trafficking out of state lines. So these zoning problems like this need to be fixed and city officials will need to take the lead. I've asked the mayor's office for their take on the map (and how the city could adjust its limits), but haven't yet heard back.