King County Lifts Cannabis Retailer Ban but Increases its Marijuana Business Regulations

Cannabis LawyersIn a somewhat surprising turn of events in April, King County (the county that contains Seattle) initiated a four month ban any new state-licensed marijuana businesses within its borders. The surprise was because King County has been relatively liberal in embracing marijuana businesses licensed by the State Liquor and Cannabis Board (“Board”). Equally surprising is that the County imposed the four-month ban without any notice to the public or input from effected stakeholders. An additional kicker is that the County this week opted to tighten existing regulations on producers and processors while also expanding access to marijuana retailers.

As Bob Young of the Seattle Times reported in April:

In the 2012 state election, 63.5 percent of King County voters supported Initiative 502 legalizing marijuana. All but 5 percent of the precincts throughout King County supported I-502. The weakest support came in Maple Valley, Enumclaw, Black Diamond, Federal Way and Hunts Point. But even in those cities, a majority voted in favor of the initiative.

Apparently though, as of April 2016, at least one county council member received multiple complaints from citizens about the “clustering” of marijuana businesses in certain parts of the County and alleged odor issues and property value declines due to the proximity of marijuana businesses. (Go here if you’re experiencing NIMBY troubles of your own.) Some King County council members also expressed dissatisfaction regarding a lack of regulations on producers and processors, aside from existing land use and permitting requirements.

Earlier this week King County adopted a new ordinance to end the current moratorium, but to further regulate producers, processors, and retailers. This new ordinance will go into effect ten days after the County Executive signs it: King County’s own website describes the new ordinance as follows:

Removes all parcels under 10 acres and designated as Rural Area (RA) zones from use in the production (growth), processing, and retail sale of marijuana…. [and] requires the County Executive to identify ten locations suitable for retail in Neighborhood Business (NB) zoned areas across unincorporated King County.

This new ordinance will allow ten cannabis retailers to enter certain neighborhood business zones which currently have no marijuana shops but it also breaks up “clustering” by mandating new 1,000 foot buffer requirements between retailers. The ordinance limits production and processing facilities to zones with lots of ten acres or larger, while still allowing producers and processors to locate in agricultural or industrial zones.

There is probably not much that can be done to change this ordinance as the passage of HB 2136 effectively ended the game of chicken between marijuana businesses and local governments regarding the legality of municipalities banning or regulating pot business.Our fear is that King County’s ban is a sign of what is to come from other Washington cities and counties that want to fight back against the statewide increase in the number of retail cannabis stores.

The bottom line. The bottom line for anyone with a cannabis business or looking to get into the cannabis industry remains the same: Make sure you know your local laws before pursuing a marijuana business license or taking any major business step. Cities and counties have proven more than willing to change their minds about marijuana regulations, bans, and zoning laws at the drop of a hat. Indeed, our cannabis lawyers just got a new matter this morning involving a city that shut down one of our client’s dispensaries because it allegedly exceeded the number of cannabis retail licenses within a certain area.