County's pot question will go to voters

By Pat Jenkins The Dispatch At a cost to taxpayers approaching half a million dollars, Pierce County plans to ask voters next year if they want licensed retail marijuana businesses to be allowed in unincorporated areas of the county. The decision by the County Council Dec. 15 to put the question before voters next April was in conjunction with another council action that repealed the county's ban on the production and selling of marijuana. The ban had been in place since November 2013, when the council prohibited state-licensed marijuana businesses until Congress removes pot from the list of federally controlled substances. That position is contrary to Washington law that emerged from statewide approval by voters in 2012 of a legalized market for regulated, recreational use of the drug. Council members last week dropped the county's requirement that in order for sellers of marijuana to obtain county permits, they must prove that marijuana isn't a federal-controlled substance and thus illegal. In addition, marijuana retailers will no longer be required to operate in standalone buildings. Last summer, the county notified marijuana dispensaries in Pierce County by letter that they have until July 1, 2016 to get a state license and a conditional-use permit from the county if they want to stay in business. Until last week's changes by the council, sellers were blocked by the federal law even if they were licensed by the state. But the council also wants the advisory vote April 16 in order to have the public's input on whether to allow state-licensed marijuana businesses. That input could have a hefty pricetag. If no other government jurisdictions besides Pierce County have measures on the ballot, the county will bear the full cost of the election. County Auditor Julie Anderson, who oversees elections for the county, estimated the bill at $425,000. She based the figure on approximately 212,000 registered voters in unincorporated portions of the county. They're the only ones that would participate in the election because they live in the areas affected by the issue. Currently, the only companion ballot measures to possibly go with the county's could come from school districts that have bonds in the February special election. If the bonds fail, the districts could run them again in April. County Council members Jim McCune, whose district covers south Pierce County, Dan Roach, Joyce McDonald and Doug Richardson voted to put the marijuana measure on then April ballot. Councilman Derek Young was in the minority on the advisory vote decision. But he was the prime sponsor of the proposal to end the ban on marijuana businesses. "If a marijuana business is licensed and follows the rules, it should be able to operate in Pierce County,GÇ¥ Young said. "I'd rather see taxes from legal sales go to making this a better community, than illegal sales lining the pockets of a street dealer.GÇ¥ Other local governments have also wrestled with the legalized marijuana issue. For instance, the Town of Eatonville has had a moratorium throughout 2015 against marijuana businesses, and the Town Council this month extended it through the first half of 2016. It outlaws producing, processing and retail sales of recreational marijuana or products containing marijuana within town limits. No such businesses have been proposed in Eatonville since state-licensed recreational marijuana sales became legal. Town officials want to be certain that legal tests of the state law and other issues, such as sharing of tax revenue from pot sales between the state and local police agencies for enforcement purposes, are resolved before opening the door to marijuana businesses.


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