Benton County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to ban all new legal pot stores in unincorporated parts of the county.
The vote will have no practical impact on the businesses that are operating legally or on one planned for an unincorporated part of land next to a West Richland neighborhood.
Current legal retailers — Finley’s Green2Go, Prosser’s Altitude and the Griffin Road area’s Bakeshop — will be grandfathered in and can keep operating.
The commission agreed to ban future stores after about 30 residents testified at a public hearing Tuesday in Prosser. One speaker supported legal marijuana. The rest favored the ban and continued to press the county on the West Richland matter.
The ban was inspired by a potential fourth marijuana retail shop. The Garden LLC’s plan to open Nirvana Cannabis Co. at a former horse ring on Arena Road immediately outside of West Richland city limits. Neighbors vehemently object, but the county couldn’t convince the state Liquor and Cannibas Board to reconsider.
The county says it can’t stop The Garden without violating its rights and inviting a lawsuit that it would certainly lose.
West Richland and the county protested The Garden, chiefly on the grounds it is less than 1,000 feet from a preschool in violation of the law. The liquor and cannabis board said it had no grounds to revoke the license and that the preschool wasn’t in a state database because of its size and hours.
Kathleen Wierschke, a West Richland resident who has helped steer the fight against The Garden’s shop, cited U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ criticism of how Washington is regulating legal pot. Sessions sees it as evidence that the state needs to rethink its approach to a substance that remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal law.
While the county’s ban won’t affect the store, Wierschke’s team has more cards left to play in its fight. The neighborhood is petitioning local lawmakers to re-open the license application, saying numerous procedural steps were missed when it was granted.
“We need to say ‘no’ until we have something else in place,” she said.
Wierschke might have one ally already. Tuesday, Rep. Bill Jenkins, R-Prosser, promised to use his position on the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming Committee, which has authority over the liquor and cannabis board, to continue the fight.
Opponents have dominated the commission’s in-person conversations, but legal marijuana has broad public support.
Hundreds of people have commented on Tri-City Herald’s Facebook page. The common theme is that Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana. As one commenter wrote Tuesday, “Why? Get over it already!!!”
Commissioners said they’re in a difficult position.
While Washington voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012, it failed in both Benton and Franklin counties. To some, that’s a mandate to keep pot out of Benton County.
Indeed, Franklin County and the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and West Richland banned marijuana retail sales early on, preempting the skirmishes now dogging Benton County.
Benton County did not initially move to ban marijuana retail sales on the fear it would be illegal. I-502 was a statewide initiative, not a local one. State attorneys initially counseled local bans.
“It didn’t win in our county,” noted Commissioner Shon Small. “Well, our governor didn’t win in our county either.”