Kent won't allow recreational marijuana businesses

Voters approved I-502 last fall to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state. - COURTESY GRAPHIC
Voters approved I-502 last fall to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state.
— image credit: COURTESY GRAPHIC

The city of Kent won't allow any recreational marijuana businesses to open in town next year even though a new state law makes them legal.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board is finalizing rules and plans to start issuing licenses in December or January for recreational marijuana producers, processors and retailers.

Kent could be seen as a prime location for marijuana manufacturing with its large warehouse district and for retailing with its numerous strip malls.

But the  City Council told city staff at a Tuesday workshop that it wants to treat recreational marijuana businesses the same way the city treats medical marijuana outlets, which are banned under city law.

"If we do nothing with our existing laws on the books, recreational marijuana is most like our medical marijuana code," Tom Brubaker, city interim chief administrative officer, said to the council. "In our opinion the net result is since medical marijuana is banned so are all forms of recreational marijuana. If they come to us, they will not be allowed in the city."

The council banned medical marijuana collective gardens with a 4-3 vote in June 2012 because it believes the businesses violate federal law that lists marijuana as an illegal drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. State law allows medical marijuana use but council members decided the state law remains unclear about distribution of the drug and doesn't want any medical marijuana collective gardens operating in Kent.

Council President Dennis Higgins asked his fellow members on Tuesday if anyone had changed their mind in connection with recreational marijuana since the vote to ban medical marijuana businesses.

"It's still illegal federally," Councilman Les Thomas said in response.

Higgins, who voted against the medical marijuana ban, favored an option presented by city staff to zone for recreational marijuana operations.

"If we don't plan for this and zone, we're going to have more problems with the policing issue," Higgins said. "Ten years from now this is all going to look like a waste of time. We need to get ahead of this."

Councilwoman Dana Ralph said she fears an increase in marijuana use by youth if the city shows approval of marijuana use by allowing retail outlets.

"I can't in good conscience say put one next to Target," Ralph said.

Voters in November approved Initiative 502 to allow recreational marijuana producers, processors and retailers. Operators must obtain a license from the state Liquor Board and the board may not issue a license for any marijuana business within 1,000 feet of schools, child care centers or other areas that attract youth.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson said she sees recreational marijuana businesses as more similar to liquor stores than medical marijuana collective gardens.

"We have First Avenue with three or four businesses in a row that sell liquor and three or four along Meeker Street that sell liquor," Albertson said. "I don't see a correlation with collective gardens that are for a medical purpose. And we can't ban the use. This only stops us from not being able to participate in tax revenue….People will engage in marijuana use and will spend money somewhere. I hate to see us cut off the nose to spite the face. People went to the ballot box and want access."

The city of Seattle is looking into zoning recreational marijuana businesses. Kent city staff told the council it could try to set up zoning regulations, such as only allowing businesses in certain areas of town.

"If you change your mind and want to zone, we can do that next spring," Brubaker said to the council after it decided to do nothing with existing laws. "But if we get an application (in January), it will be denied."

David Galazin, assistant city attorney, told the council that the state Liquor Board will notify the city if any licenses are issued for Kent. He said operators will be told they are not allowed in the city. Those applicants to the city's Planning Department could then appeal the decision to the city hearing examiner.

The liquor board has no authority to dictate zoning requirements to local governments, according to the liquor board website. Municipalities could conceivably zone marijuana-related businesses out of their geographical area. And that is what Kent has done.

As far as the city's medical marijuana business ban, Ralph asked city staff why a couple of medical marijuana collective gardens still operate in the city despite the ban.

"We told them to close and they continue to fight us," Brubaker said. "They have no legal right to operate under the zoning code. We continue to analyze it and may take further action."

The Herbal Choice Caregivers business along West Valley Highway in North Kent has fought the city in King County Superior Court and state courts to stay open and the issue remains tied up in the courts. South King Holistic opened in January on the West Hill.


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