The smell of pot at Finley schools was unmistakeable.
It choked the last two River View High School football games and found its way into the buildings.
But it wasn’t what you think.
It wasn’t students or even adults smoking marijuana. The unmistakeable aroma was wafting from the October harvest of legally planted cannabis fields.
The smell permeating school buildings is “ridiculous,” Finley schools Superintendent Lance Hahn told Benton County Commissioners on Tuesday.
He described in vivid detail one of the unintended consequences of legal cannabis in Washington state.
The commission’s regular business session included a lengthy discussion of a continuing struggle with cannabis after state voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.
“It’s a huge concern,” Hahn said. He said students with respiratory illness have missed school because of the stench and noted it makes a bad impression on visitors.
“We have visiting teams that are coming to compete, they’re going, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’” he said.
Hahn said the harvest-related odors were strongest in the first three weeks of October, triggering a series of community meetings that continue Wednesday with a 6 p.m. session at Finley’s community center.
I hear a lot of what we can’t do. I want to hear what we can do.
Brina Holden, Finley resident
School officials aren’t the only ones noticing the smell. Brina Holden told commissioners she regularly rides her horse around the rural community east of Kennewick. Legal and illegal grow operations are a routine part of her route.
“I’m in and out of that horrible smell,” she said, demanding the commission move to curb the problem.
“I hear a lot of what we can’t do. I want to hear what we can do,” she said.
The smell of cannabis brings Finley into a fight that in recent months has centered on West Richland and its battle to prevent a legal cannabis retailer from opening on Arena Road, just outside of the city limits.
Initiative 502 passed statewide, but was deeply unpopular in Benton and Franklin counties.
Most local jurisdictions adopted bans and moratoriums. Benton County, after being advised it would be at risk for litigation if it adopted a ban, did not join them.
That left it one of the few places where such businesses could operate legally under state law, though federal law still treats it as an illegal Schedule 1 drug.
The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board authorized three legal retail shops in unincorporated Benton County. Earlier this year, it added the fourth, The Garden LLC, operating as Nirvana Cannabis Co., on Arena Road.
The move prompted sharp opposition from neighbors who object to potential traffic and drug trafficking in a neighborhood that includes a preschool, church, school bus stops and homes.
In July, the county commission approved a moratorium on future shops, but its hands were tied in the West Richland case, where the shop had to be grandfathered in. Commissioners say the county objected but the state agency that licenses cannabis operations ignored its concerns.
Residents have vowed to keep up the pressure and to litigate the situation if necessary. The issue is driving a wedge between Benton County and some West Richland officials and has become a political hot potato in several of the races for West Richland City Council, as well.
I’m not taking all the blame. (West Richland) could have fought it. They didn’t.
Commissioner Jerome Delvin
In a letter read aloud at Tuesday’s meeting, West Richland City Councilman John Smart called on the county commission to press the state to use its legal discretion to cancel Nirvana’s license under a law pertaining to nearby recreation centers and facilities. The license is under review.
“The responsibility for this folly lies squarely on the shoulders of our three county commissioners,” Smart wrote. “Because of the lack of communication with citizens and our local municipality, only our commissioners can be held responsible for fleeing from the fight and allowing this outright assault on our families, our community and our church.”
Commissioner Jerome Delvin took exception to the accusations.
“I’m not taking all the blame,” he said. “(West Richland) could have fought it. They didn’t.”
Hahn, the school superintendent, said Finley contains less than 1 percent of Benton County’s total area, but is home to 25 percent of its permitted cannabis producers and one of the three legal retail outlets, Green2Go.
“It feels like Finley is a dumping ground because it isn’t allowed in Kennewick,” he said. “We don’t want to feel like a dumping ground.”
Hahn said the smell isn’t the only issue.
It feels like Finley is a dumping ground because it isn’t allowed in Kennewick. We don’t want to feel like a dumping ground.
Finley Superintendent Lance Hahn
Green2Go, operated by Jesse and Steve Lee, draws more than 1,000 customers a day, causing traffic issues on the formerly sleepy highway.
Steve Lee, who is challenging Greg Jones for a spot on the Kennewick City Council, said he’s tried to get a left turn lane to ease traffic issues.
When that failed, he moved to relocate Green2Go to a new building across the street. The move later this month should eliminate most left turn traffic and provide more parking and security.
Lee said there’s been a noticeable uptick in interest in the business since the “smelly” harvest season began. Green2Go is a retailer, not a grower.
Tuesday morning, he said a woman photographing Green2Go from a truck yelled, “Get your store out of town” before speeding off with a companion.
“It is getting weird,” he said.