The number of Tri-City businesses hoping to get into the marijuana trade has continued to skyrocket as state employees process an overwhelming number of applications.
So far, the state has received applications for at least 69 pot farms, 44 processors and 42 retail stores in Benton and Franklin counties, according to data released Tuesday by the state Liquor Control Board.
Officials do not know yet how many of the applications are actually viable. They need to determine how many meet state criteria and how many have the right to grow, process or sell pot on their property. A lottery is planned to select retail stores.
Statewide, the number of applicants has grown to almost 2,700 growers, more than 1,900 processors and more than 2,000 retail locations, according to the data.
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State officials aren't sure exactly when the final list of license applicants will be available, although the 30-day application ended last month.
Mikhail Carpenter, liquor control board spokesman, said officials expected strong interest after voters approved Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana.
The state plans to start issuing licenses by the end of February or beginning of March, Carpenter said. Retail locations may be able to open around June.
The state has limited the total farmland where pot will be grown to about 46 acres statewide this year.
Alison Holcomb, the Seattle attorney who drafted the legal marijuana law, said the liquor control board should be prepared to raise the cap of 2 million square feet of farmland, to ensure enough is grown to meet demand.
The number of retail stores has also been limited to 334 statewide. Locally, 15 licenses are planned for Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, West Richland and unincorporated areas of Benton and Franklin counties.
The liquor control board plans to allow up to four stores each in Kennewick and Pasco, three in Richland, one in West Richland, two in Benton County outside the three larger cities and one in Franklin County outside Pasco.
Marijuana retail stores cannot be within 1,000 feet of public schools, parks, libraries, public transit centers or child care facilities, according to state rules. Pot-related sales will be the only business allowed in those stores. Officials must also conduct background checks on applicants and their financial backers.
Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and West Richland have imposed moratoriums on pot-related businesses and the four city councils have not decided where those businesses may be allowed in city boundaries, if at all.
The state will issue a license if an applicant is qualified regardless of whether cities have moratoriums, Carpenter said. It's up to the applicant to be in compliance with local laws.
There is nothing in Initiative 502 that allows cities to opt out of allowing pot businesses within their boundaries, he said. One of the things the state Attorney General's Office has been asked to rule on is whether cities can ban those businesses.
Only four of Washington's 75 largest cities -- Kent, Lakewood, Wenatchee and SeaTac -- have banned marijuana businesses, according to a recent survey by The Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, a nonprofit research-action think tank.
Thirty-four of the cities have imposed moratoriums similar to the Tri-Cities and West Richland, according to the survey. Another 23 cities have put zoning rules in place.
Six companies who were previously on the list of Tri-City applicants are no longer listed. Carpenter said some businesses have withdrawn themselves from the process.
While some Tri-Citians have told the Herald they applied for a license but do not plan to use it themselves, Carpenter said applicants won't be able to sell or transfer licenses.
State officials will inspect premises where businesses plan to grow, process or sell marijuana before issuing a license, he said. About 14 licensing investigators have been hired by the liquor control board.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org