Liquor board will issue licenses in areas with pot bans

Staff writerFebruary 19, 2014 

The Washington State Liquor Control Board announced Wednesday that it will issue marijuana licenses to all who qualify, regardless of pot bans in local jurisdictions.

AP PHOTO/ED ANDRIESKI, FILE

State marijuana regulators announced Wednesday that they will issue marijuana licenses to all who qualify, regardless of pot bans in local jurisdictions.

"There's nothing in the law that allows us to not issue a license," said Randy Simmons, deputy director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

Board member Chris Marr said the decision by the liquor board should not be seen as an attack on local governments.

"Many of these moratoria are in place in these cities that need more time to address zoning issues," Marr said. "This gives each applicant the ability to work with jurisdictions."

Following the passage of Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana in Washington, several communities around the state banned recreational pot businesses.

In response, the liquor board asked the attorney general to review whether communities can say no to a legal, state-permitted business.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that nothing in I-502 prevented local governments from banning pot businesses.

The liquor control board's response: There is also nothing in the initiative that prevents the board from issuing licenses to qualified applicants looking to locate in jurisdictions with bans. The onus would be on the applicants to obtain the necessary local approvals
before opening.

Dan Roach, chairman of the Pierce County Council, said Wednesday he was not surprised by the liquor board's announcement, but that until the federal government changes its stance on pot, the de facto ban on marijuana businesses in unincorporated Pierce County will stay in effect.

A business in unincorporated Pierce County could still be issued a license by the liquor board, but the county would deny it a permit to operate.

"I think this whole debate will take a lot of different turns and directions," said Roach, R-Bonney Lake. "I definitely think there's a definite conflict going against federal law...it is a big experiment...with some serious issues unanswered."

Pot entrepreneurs looking to open in Lakewood, University Place and Sumner - which also have bans or moratoriums on marijuana businesses - will face similar hurdles.

In Lakewood, a potential business will have to prove that it meets federal law, which still prohibits marijuana sales and use even though the feds have said they will allow the state's legalization experiment to go forward. City Manager John Caulfield said the city will decide
how to respond when and if the state issues a license to a pot business that wants to operate in Lakewood.

Of the 334 retail pot licenses the liquor board plans to issue, it has set aside two for Lakewood. The board plans to begin issuing licenses to qualified applicants as early as the first week of March.

Also Wednesday, the liquor control board decided to deal with a glut of would-be legal marijuana growers by cutting back on the number of licenses it issues and the maximum size of pot farms.

The three-member board voted unanimously to limit applicants to one license apiece, rather than three. And it decided to allow growers to produce 70 percent of the maximum growing space they applied for. For example, those who applied for three of the largest licenses -- up to 90,000 square feet total -- will be limited to just one license enabling them to grow 21,000 square feet, at least at first.

Most of the applicants were not planning to use the full amount of space they applied for, board director Rick Garza said, and so limiting the size of their growing operations or the number of their licenses didn't much faze them. If the state turns out to need more
weed, the board could boost the growers up to the full amount of a single license -- 30,000 square feet instead of 21,000, for the largest grows -- or eventually start issuing multiple licenses.

But the board's decision Wednesday upset some prospective growers who applied for multiple licenses with plans of growing up to 90,000 square feet of cannabis, said Hilary Bricken, a Seattle marijuana business attorney whose clients include about 10 such growers. They have been securing leases and preparing their business plans based on
the idea that they would be able to produce that much, she said.

Dan Anglin, a spokesman for a Seattle group that is under contract to buy the 180,000-square-foot former K2 Sports building on Vashon Island, said he was stunned. The group has applied for three 30,000-square-foot licenses, and it was prepared to spend $5 million purchasing the building and preparing it for their legal marijuana and packaging operations.

Their contract is conditioned on a zoning issued being resolved. If it is, they'll likely find themselves with a big, expensive building they can only partially use, Anglin said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Annaliese Davis: 360-943-7240
annaliese.davis@thenewstribune.com

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