On pot regulations, county sought to strike a balance

EVERETT — As Initiative 502 rolls out and legal marijuana businesses prepare to open their doors, cities and towns across Washington have taken different approaches in deciding whether and how to regulate those operations.

Snohomish County has adopted zoning regulations that, on the whole, try to strike a balance between community character and business interests.

As a result, the county’s zoning allows for marijuana producers, processors and retailers to operate in the county with relatively few additional regulations on top of what state law already mandates.

Compared with elsewhere, that’s a fairly permissive approach.

“I think we were pretty commonsense about it and tried to listen to the industry folks about their concerns and needs, and the public in general,” County Councilman Dave Somers said.

From the beginning, the Snohomish County Council approached the sales and distribution side of the business as it would the liquor industry, Somers said, and decided to treat pot growing and processing as industrial operations, and to regulate those accordingly.

On the whole, the discussions at the committee and council level, meetings with business lobbyists and public hearings were marked by a high level of engagement and support.

“We had very little controversy at the council level and we had little controversy or opposition from the public. It went fairly smoothly,” Somers said.

The Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, a Seattle think tank tracking I-502 implementation, has counted 36 cities and towns in Washington state that have moratoriums of up to a year in place against any marijuana businesses. These include some in Snohomish County, such as Marysville and Mill Creek.

In addition, a few jurisdictions, including Pierce County, have enacted bans on all marijuana businesses. Other cities, such as Everett, have adopted zoning regulations but may revisit them later as the legal marijuana industry gains momentum, said Everett city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke.

Snohomish County’s outreach included holding several public meetings where most comments came from marijuana proponents, Somers said, including people already involved in the medical marijuana industry, their patients, or people who were interested in starting a new business under I-502.

It also involved the council sitting down with lobbyists and lawyers representing the industry.

The lobbyists didn’t get everything they wanted. Medical marijuana dispensaries in residential neighborhoods wanted to be grandfathered in under new zoning regulations that would otherwise prohibit them from operating there.

“We didn’t want to open up that can of worms,” Somers said.

One accommodation lobbyists won in Snohomish County was to allow growing on some smaller rural plots.

Stephanie Boehl, a Seattle attorney representing several marijuana businesses who lobbied the council, said there was wide interest in allowing farmers to diversify into growing marijuana on their land.

“A number of people (in the public forums) had farmers in their families for generations, and they were hoping to transition,” Boehl said.

On the whole, given the hostility the marijuana business has experienced elsewhere, the Snohomish County Council has put forward a balanced zoning ordinance, Boehl said.

“We said, ‘You know, this is the law, the people voted on it, we’re going to make it work,’ ” Somers said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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