Thurston County Commissioners pondered their next step in regulating marijuana operations in the county on Wednesday, especially in the Grand Mound area where a number of operations are licensed or under review.
Currently, the county has a set of interim regulations in place that are set to expire on Nov. 8 if they are not renewed or finalized. They dictate that operations are limited to commercial and industrial zones, and there is no limit on the number of medical marijuana cooperatives allowed. New operations are prohibited from rural residential areas; however, those currently in operation have been grandfathered in.
Commissioner Bud Blake said he was concerned about the number of operations in the Grand Mound area because they could choke out other businesses and could become a focal point for operations in the county.
In order to prevent that from happening, county staff recommended a zoning overlay that would prohibit any more applications in the area. It is a common land use regulation tool, Jeremy Davis, senior planner in the Resource Stewardship and Long Range planning department, said. In order to do this, the county would have to hold a public hearing and reach out to the area impacted to see what residents and businesses think.
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The commissioners could also make the the current regulations permanent and revisit the issue in a year or so, Davis said.
Resource Stewardship Director Brent Butler said the county could wait to see what impact the federal budget would have on local marijuana laws. Currently, federal funds cannot be used to prosecute marijuana activity if it is allowed under state law.
However, the future of the amendment and of legal marijuana are up in the air due to the messages from the U.S. Department of Justice about the issue, Butler said. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions have exchanged letters on the matter, but it’s unclear what direction the federal government will go.
Commissioner John Hutchings said he did not want to wait for the federal government to make a decision about enforcement because it could take until October. If the commissioners direct staff now, then there will be time to change the regulations if needed before they expire.
Blake was also concerned about how Thurston County regulations compare to surrounding counties. If they are too lax, then more operations will want to move to the county, potentially creating a flood of new applicants.
Davis said Thurston County is on par with Pierce and Kitsap counties when it comes to where operations are permitted, in commercial and industrial zones. Grays Harbor and Mason counties currently allow operations in rural residential areas, which is more lax than Thurston County.
Currently, 80 applicants for operations are being processed by Thurston County. This number has been declining since the initial boom in 2014, county Long Range Planning Manager Cindy Wilson said.
The majority of applicants, numbering 48, are for producer-processor operations, according to a staff report.
There are 16 producers, 11 retailers and 5 processors, according to the county.
The state is not issuing any new operation licenses, Davis said, but licenses can be transferred. The county has to treat these licenses like any other business and regulate through land use code. It is similar to how a liquor license works, he added.
Under state law, the operation that produces and processes the marijuana must be owned by different people, Davis said.
The commissioners are scheduled to discuss the issue at their agenda setting meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to county spokeswoman Meghan Porter. The meeting will be in Building 1, Room 280, of the Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Dr. SW, Olympia.
Staff reporter Lisa Pemberton contributed to this report.