Franklin County Commission finds solution elusive for collective pot gardens

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 7, 2013 

Franklin County commissioners are contemplating making it illegal under the county's zoning rules for medical marijuana patients to grow pot plants in collective gardens.

The county has had a moratorium -- renewed every six months -- on collective medical marijuana gardens since 2011 when the Legislature passed a reform of the state's law permitting use of the drug for authorized patients.

Commissioners Wednesday considered whether to extend the moratorium for another six months or to look for another option.

"Do we have to bring this up every six months or is there a more permanent solution?" Commissioner Bob Koch asked.

Ryan Verhulp, the county's attorney, said the county could opt to change its zoning laws to ban the gardens, since they essentially are a land use question.

"That's one way collective gardens could be permanently addressed," he said.

Since 1998, state law has allowed patients with certain conditions such as terminal illnesses or severe chronic pain to get an authorization from a health care provider to use marijuana for medical purposes. It also allows patients or their designated caregivers to grow a limited number of marijuana plants. But the law didn't address collective gardens until the reform passed in 2011.

The reform allowed patients to grow marijuana plants in collective gardens -- with limits -- but left it up to individual cities and counties to figure out how to implement the law.

Tri-City jurisdictions opted to make moratoriums temporarily banning collective gardens in the expectation the Legislature would further amend the law, but that hasn't happened and in November, voters approved a state initiative legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Verhulp said he doesn't expect any more action by the Legislature on medical marijuana, at least for now.

"There won't be any more regulation on collective gardens. That was left to local jurisdictions," Verhulp said.

Instead, the state is focusing on creating a regulatory framework for the growth, sale and taxation of pot in the wake of the voter-approved initiative. Meanwhile, the drug remains illegal under federal law, and city and county governments remain caught in the middle of a conflict between state and federal law.

Pasco opted to resolve that conflict at least in part by changing its zoning code in June 2012 to prohibit any activities that are against local, state or federal law. That includes the issuing of a building permit or business license for a collective garden where authorized patients would grow cannabis plants together.

Commissioners on Wednesday directed Verhulp and the county's planning staff to develop a set of proposed zoning regulations to address marijuana gardens, preferably before the current moratorium expires June 19.

-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @mduplertch

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