Wash. Attorney General: Cities can block pot business

SEATTLE Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson says cities and counties can block licensed marijuana businesses from operating.

In a long-awaited opinion Thursday, Ferguson says the state's legal marijuana law, Initiative 502, leaves local governments the option of adopting moratoriums or bans that prohibit licensed grow operations, processing facilities or retail shops from their jurisdictions.

The opinion was requested by the Washington Liquor Control Board, which has been concerned that such local bans could restrict access to legal marijuana and make it difficult to move people away from the black market.

Some jurisdictions, including unincorporated Pierce County, Lakewood and Wenatchee, have effective bans on pot businesses, because their local ordinances require businesses to follow state, federal and local law, and marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Nearly three dozen of the state's 75 biggest cities, from Redmond to Pullman, have adopted moratoriums of up to a year on marijuana businesses.

Good for North Bonneville?

The first city to apply for legal pot sales in the state of Washington was North Bonneville.

On Thursday, Mayor Don Stevens told KATU, "Sometimes I'll go home at night shaking my head and then the next day I think they're getting it together, and then we'll see what happens tomorrow."

Stevens says he doesn't anticipate North Bonneville will change course and plans to sell marijuana.

"502 was set up to eliminate the illegal black market by making legal marijuana accessible to the rest of the state," Stevens said. "Now the attorney general is saying it's legal, unless the city decides they don't want to make it accessible to residents of their part of the state, so you're left with the black market again."

Stevens said he does see a possible silver lining in this scenario if other surrounding governments vote to ban the sale of marijuana.

"There's so many 'what if' scenarios playing through all of our heads," he said. "One potentially good situation is for me, I guess, for me as mayor of North Bonneville. If everybody else prohibits it and we're the only place where it's available, North Bonneville we become a happening spot."

The AG's opinion is not legally binding, but considered influential as local governments figure out how to handle pot businesses.

The issue could land in court. Some applicants for marijuana licenses have indicated that they plan to sue if they're granted licenses from the state but then barred by local authorities from doing business.

One possible outcome of such a lawsuit could be the state's pot-regulation scheme being invalidated on the grounds that it conflicts with federal law banning marijuana even though President Barack Obama's administration has given states permission to experiment with marijuana regulation.

In Colorado, the only other state to approve marijuana for recreational use by adults over 21, the law expressly allows local governments to adopt bans. Large swaths of the state have opted out of the legal-pot regime, including Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city.

Stewart Estes, a private Seattle attorney who has been enlisted to represent Pierce County should it be sued over its pot business ban, said Ferguson's opinion was well reasoned and stood "for the unremarkable proposition that cities and counties can regulate illegal activity in their jurisdictions."

In a written statement, Washington state liquor board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said the opinion would be a disappointment to the majority of voters who approved the law.

"If some local governments impose bans it will impact public safety by allowing the current illicit market to continue," she said. "It will also reduce the state's expectations for revenue generated from the legal system we are putting in place."

Lawmakers are already working on a couple of approaches for boosting access to legal pot.

Under one bill introduced in Olympia, cities could lose out on their share of liquor-license revenue if they don't play ball with pot businesses. Another measure attempts to lure those cities into allowing the establishments by promising them a slice of excise taxes on marijuana sales.

Legal marijuana sales are expected to begin in Washington in June or July.

KATU's Emily Sinovic reported from North Bonneville.