Chehalis turns to hemp laws for zoning marijuana businesses

Relying on a law meant to regulate the processing and fabrication of hemp fiber, Chehalis plans to zone the recreational marijuana industry into the industrial parts of the city.

When the city decided to allow legalized marijuana businesses to operate in town, it didn’t create any specific zoning because the state originally allowed only a handful of businesses to be licensed in each municipality.

But because the state Liquor and Cannabis Board has lifted the cap and is accepting new marijuana business applicants without a quota, Chehalis wants to control where the businesses can operate.

The city council will consider the ordinance Tuesday to create a new zoning definition for recreational marijuana producers and processors. Much like the ordinance passed last year in Centralia, it would limit them only to the light industrial and heavy industrial parts of town. The document being presented to the city council doesn’t allow for conditional use.

Currently, two marijuana businesses, one producer processor and a retail store, occupy the same building close to downtown Chehalis in the 400 block of State Avenue.

According to city documents, “The city code allows hemp production and processing in the industrial zones and the administration has interpreted cannabis and hemp as one and the same, as both contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and come from the same plant (the marijuana plant).

However, David Kois, a businessman who fought the city of Centralia for two years to allow the marijuana industry into town, takes umbrage with the comparison.

“You think we’re paper and textile and manufacturing?” he said. “Hemp fiber is very differently defined by the law than recreational marijuana.”

“It still comes from the marijuana plant,” said Chehalis Community Development Director Dennis Osborn. “… We’re not imposing any regulations on it above and beyond what the state wants. … I think we’re splitting hairs a little because I’m not going to put it in a residential zone or commercial zone. It’s an industrial use and it belongs in the industrial zone.”

When marijuana was legalized in Washington state, the production of commercial hemp was decriminalized as well. Some legislation to legalize it outright and treat it as an agricultural product sailed through the Senate but was defeated in the House.

Hemp is a common ingredient in paper, cloth and food products, but hemp cultivation was made illegal in 1970 in the U.S. because of its relationship to marijuana. While 22 states have legalized the production of legal hemp since, and legislation has been introduced at the federal level, the law has yet to be overturned.

The majority of hemp that’s sold in the United States is imported from Canada. The Hemp Industry Association estimates the sales of hemp food and body care products were more than $620 million for 2014.

Kois said there are a number of empty large commercial buildings in the city that would be suitable for the marijuana industry.

Kois originally planned to build a 40,000-square-foot building in Centralia, but rising construction costs proved to be too much for he and his business partners. Now he’s found a large building in Chehalis that he wants to use. The building is zoned commercial, but at least as far back as 1998 it has been zoned industrial under a special use permit for the company Alaskan Campers.

Kois applied for a business license with the city on Thursday. He said the building is ideal for his business because it’s far off the beaten business path and has lengthy history of industrial use, but he worries that the city will reject his application based on the changes they’re trying to make.

Osborn said creating zoning for marijuana is an attempt to minimize any potential backlash from the federal government should they decide to crack down on states that allow recreational marijuana.

“It’s like hemp — that’s as much of a hands-off approach as we can take,” he said.