Benton City will not embrace marijuana businesses until residents have a chance to weigh in via an advisory ballot.
The city council shelved plans Tuesday night to authorize marijuana businesses under the 2012 voter-approved Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana use in Washington.
The council approved the marijuana plan on a 3-2 vote when it came up for first reading on April 5. But support waned Tuesday night in the face of a feisty crowd that said legalizing retail, production and processing businesses is the wrong move for the city.
Council members Lisa Stade, Mary Lattau and Jake Mokler voted to shelve the ordinance until the city conducts an advisory ballot to measure citizen sentiment. The ballot would not be binding but would guide the city as it navigates the controversial topic.
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Anticipating a crowd, the council moved the meeting to the community center. Approximately 150 angry people were unable to enter because of fire code issues, resulting in often testy exchanges with Mayor Linda Lehman.
Lehman attempted to frame the debate as a question of regulating and taxing a business that already operates in Benton City, which has an expiring moratorium against marijuana businesses.The ordinance would have allowed the city to regulate and control marijuana.
“I don’t want to argue about locating a marijuana business,” she told the crowd.
Roughly 70 percent of speakers opposed legalizing marijuana businesses in Benton City, calling on the council to to protect the community and reduce the availability of marijuana.
Supporters countered that legalizing businesses would generate taxes, give the city more control over marijuana sellers and would be a welcome outlet for medical marijuana users.
But opponents cast legalizing businesses selling a substance that’s still a Schedule 1 federal offense as a moral issue.
“You can justify it all you want but it’s still wrong,” Lynn Leavitt told the council.
Nicole Bragg said marijuana-related vandalism is already a problem at the home she shares with her parents and siblings, and authorizing marijuana businesses would put the city in an awkward position.
“Are we going to be the drug dealers?” Bragg asked.
Her father, David Bragg, said he is concerned about a proposed 100-foot buffer around residential neighborhoods, which he called inadequate. “I don’t want to live next door to it.”
Peggy Higham, a Benton City resident who marshaled opponents to attend the council meeting, observed that 56 percent of Benton County voters opposed Initiative 502. The community doesn’t want it and she said extending the moratorium won’t hurt recreational or medical marijuana users. There are two retail outlets in the Prosser area.
“You can still use it,” she said to a standing ovation. “Drive 15 miles down the road.”
Supporters were equally adamant that Benton City adapt to changing times, regulate an industry that’s already operating in its jurisdiction and collect the taxes.
‘This is justice for us all. This is economics for us all,” said Bob Brown, a former school board member who drew loud cheers from pro-marijuana advocates.
Brad Klippert, a uniformed Benton County Sheriff’s Deputy who serves in Benton City, said marijuana cases are already common in Benton City schools.
“I beg you not to make it more prolific in your community,” he said.
Under the now-shelved ordinance, Benton City would have joined Prosser as the only cities in the county to legalize marijuana businesses. Under state law, marijuana businesses are restricted within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and other child-friendly areas. Benton City added a separate 100-foot buffer around residences and schools.
The ordinance would have allowed marijuana businesses to apply to the planning commission for conditional use permits to operate in the city’s commercial and industrial zones, which chiefly lie along I-82 to the south.
Prosser has one marijuana retailer, Altitude. The Bake Shop, which opened in 2015, has a Prosser address but is several miles outside of the city, a planner said.
Legal marijuana businesses pay about 46 percent in excise taxes, sales taxes and other fees. According to 502data.com, the industry has paid nearly $193 million in excise taxes statewide since the first recreational sales were legalized n 2014.