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Preparing for pot: Officials ready the rules

Jarrod Lewis, the assistant director of permitting with DPER, fields questions at a recent public meeting about the proposed zoning for marijuana-related businesses on Vashon. - Susan Riemer/Staff Photo
Jarrod Lewis, the assistant director of permitting with DPER, fields questions at a recent public meeting about the proposed zoning for marijuana-related businesses on Vashon.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/Staff Photo

Proposed regulations regarding Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana use in the state, could mean that Vashon will see marijuana-related retail businesses and production facilities in the heart of downtown next year and fenced fields of marijuana around the island.

Representatives from King County’s Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER) and a variety of other governmental agencies hosted a public meeting last week on Vashon, seeking islanders’ feedback on DPER’s draft zoning ordinance for marijuana-related businesses that will grow, process or sell the drug for recreational use. DPER representatives also provided information about zoning rules the agency plans to create for medical marijuana facilities, which DPER currently does not regulate.

Roughly 30 people attended the meeting and expressed a variety of opinions and concerns.

“This is great. I never thought this would happen,” said Kathy Flynn, an islander who spoke at the meeting.

Others expressed reservations, including a woman who said she voted yes on the initiative, but lives next door to a medical marijuana dispensary and wonders what effect it might have on the value of her home, which she hopes to sell in the spring.

Meri-Michael Collins, co-chair of the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse, noted the potential appearance of marijuana-growing facilities, slated to be located in rural and agricultural areas, as the state’s draft regulations call for them to be surrounded by 8-foot barriers and be outfitted with lights and security cameras.

Several in the audience advocated for allowing processing facilities to be located at growing facilities —  something DPER’s draft plan does not call for.

DPER will likely alter some of its proposed regulations because of the comments it received on Vashon and at other public meetings it held around the region, John Starbard, the director of DPER, said, noting that public feedback is still welcome.

“We want to hear from the public on this very important matter,” he said.

Most of the comments offered at meetings were well-reasoned, he added.

“People had really done their homework,” he said. “You can’t ask for more than that.”

DPER’s proposed plan calls for indoor growing and processing of marijuana in areas zoned as Community Business, Regional Business and Industrial, and retail sales would be allowed in the Neighborhood Business, Community Business and Regional Business zones. On Vashon, these zones fall mostly within the downtown corridor, though a small number of additional sites available for retail sales are scattered around the island, including at the north end, at Portage and in Burton. Under the proposed ordinance, marijuana could be grown outdoors in any part of the island that is zoned Agricultural or Rural — areas that cover most of the island.

While DPER is charged with regulating where marijuana-related businesses can be located, the state Liquor Control Board is regulating all other aspects of the new industry, from licensing requirements to product testing.

The liquor board had expected to issue its latest proposed rules last week, but that agency is also revising some of its provisions because of public comment and will issue a new proposal early next month. The revised regulations are expected to clarify how much marijuana could be produced, regulate how much marijuana those with licenses could have on hand and establish the number of retail establishments allowed in each county, according to a press release from the board.

Botec Analysis Corporation, a consulting firm the liquor control board hired to assist in the implementation of the initiative, has preliminarily projected 330 marijuana-related businesses in the state, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the liquor control board. In King County, the consultants estimated 36 retail establishments, with the mean distance to a store being 3.8 miles, according to Botec documents on the liquor board’s website. Botec developed this number based on population and marijuana consumption data, Smith said.

The liquor board’s intent is to be population sensitive, he noted, and at the same time ensure that there are enough stores to provide adequate access.

“Part of our charge is to minimize the black market,” Smith said.

On Vashon, this could mean that if no one steps forward to become licensed as a marijuana retailer on the island, the state could designate Vashon as a store location for another interested party to open a business, according to Smith.

DPER’s Starbard noted last week that his agency had not yet set a date for its own revisions but expects it will follow the state’s Sept. 4 deadline so that DPER can align its regulations with the state’s.

Once completed, the county will submit the draft to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office, who will then submit it to the King County Council for approval.

Councilmember Joe McDermott attended last week’s meeting and noted that waiting for the state’s revised plan would be a good move for the county, as there is no need to rush the ordinance through the council, and waiting would optimize chances of success.

“I would like it to work the first time,” he said.

Many public officials have stressed that the process of legalizing and regulating marijuana is uncharted territory, and that is true when it comes to enforcing the state new laws, as marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Major Jerrell Willis, the Southwest Precinct Commander at the King County Sheriff’s Department, attended last week’s meeting and afterward addressed this issue. He agreed there is confusion in this area but said the department will adhere to the will of the voters and the legislation.

“We will follow the state law,” he said.

Alan Painter, manager of the county’s Community Service Area spoke about this issue following the meeting as well.

“The general feeling is if the state regulates it well, the feds will give us some room,” he said. “But there is no certainty about that.”

The liquor board’s Smith confirmed the lack of certainty.

The Department of Justice is likely looking at the controls Washington and Colorado are placing in their rules, Smith said, but federal officials have not said they won’t intervene even if the controls are adequate.

“They have said that marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law and that they are reviewing Washington and Colorado’s systems,” Smith said in a recent email.

The law requires that the state must have its rules in place by Dec. 1, and the agency is on track to meet that deadline, Smith said.

A 30-day window to apply for marijuana business licenses will open in November, and because so many applicants are expected, Smith said, it will likely be at least 90 days before state licenses are issued.

To contact the county about zoning issues, email DPERCannabisFeedback@kingcounty.gov.

For more information about the county’s proposed rules and to see its maps related to marijuana-related businesses, see www.kingcounty.gov/property/permits.aspx.

For more information about the state’s rules, see liq.wa.gov.

Washington State Liquor Control Board Schedule

Sept. 4: File revised proposed rules.

Oct. 9: Public hearing at a location yet to be determined.

Oct. 16: The Washington State Liquor Control Board adopts the rules.

Nov. 16: Rules become effective.

Nov. 18 to Dec. 18: The liquor control board accepts licensing applications.

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