On The Separation of Church and Pot

A Seattle church located in uber-hip Capitol Hill (Mt. Calvary Christian Center) is protesting against Uncle Ike’s, a state licensed cannabis retailer that has opened up shop next door. The church’s lead pastor claims that a cannabis retailer located within 1,000 feet of his church is “an indictment of where our society has come.” This pastor also believes that Uncle Ike’s very existence will inevitably put cannabis into the hands of his congregation’s youth.

Legally, the church has neither standing nor any legal basis to challenge Uncle Ike’s. Just as the church would have no basis for challenging the existence or the location of the liquor store that’s right across the street from and well within 1,000 feet of the church; this liquor store has been there for years — without any protest — despite alcohol’s obvious harms.

Washington State law prohibits cannabis businesses form locating within 1,000 feet of the various types of places listed in WAC 314-55-050(10). That list does not include religious institutions. Mt Calvary’s lead pastor is calling for the Washington State legislature to add churches to its 1,000 foot list or for the City of Seattle to implement its own similar prohibition.

That would be a mistake. And it could set a dangerous precedent in other states as those states undertake marijuana legalization. Why?

As a result of extensive footage and setback requirements in both state and local legislation, the number of eligible locations for a cannabis business in any city anywhere is already severely limited. It is not at all unusual for our cannabis lawyers to spend weeks working with our clients vetting locations to determine whether or not they’ll work. We have confronted this problem in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada, and Oregon, in addition to Washington. If churches are added to Washington’s “1,000-foot-list,” cannabis businesses would almost never be permitted to open based on available space. If legalized cannabis is to have any chance of defeating black and gray market cannabis, we need more cannabis businesses, not less.

Of even greater importance is the need to maintain separation of church and state. Why should a religious institution be treated differently from a political or social institution or a private residence? Why would favoring a religious institution not constitute a violation of our Constitution’s First Amendment requirement to separate church and state?

In addition, the voters of Washington chose not to require cannabis businesses to keep their distance from churches and the NIMBY dissatisfaction of one church is no reason to contradict the will of the people.

Marijuana is being legalized and regulated and one of the reasons for doing that is to reduce its usage by children, and so far that appears to be working. If we start distrusting the efficacy of regulation and initiate rules that will essentially shut down legal marijuana, we likely will be increasing youth access to marijuana where its prohibition actually makes it easier to obtain.

Though we respect the right to protest, we believe that the best hope for a responsible cannabis program in Washington (and elsewhere) lies with the desires of dispensaries like Uncle Ike’s to operate a law-abiding, community conscious business for adults and with state regulations that make that both possible and necessary.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Uncle Ike’s is a client of our law firm.