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Future pot production could be banned next in Benton County

The Benton County commission in considering extending its ban on cannabis sales to production and processing as well. If approved, the temporary moratorium would not affect the licenses of the 47 cannabis producers and 35 processors with Benton County addresses. Above, a processor smells cannabis at a Prosser auction.
The Benton County commission in considering extending its ban on cannabis sales to production and processing as well. If approved, the temporary moratorium would not affect the licenses of the 47 cannabis producers and 35 processors with Benton County addresses. Above, a processor smells cannabis at a Prosser auction. Tri-City Herald

Benton County has a moratorium on new cannabis sales. On Tuesday, it takes aim at production and processing too.

The county commission will consider an emergency ordinance to ban new cannabis production and processing in Benton County for six months when it meets at 9 a.m. at the county courthouse, 620 Market St., Prosser.

Like the retail ban that preceded it, the ban would only affect new operators. It would not apply to the 47 cannabis producers and 35 processors with physical addresses in Benton County.

If approved, the emergency moratorium would immediately take effect, but the commission would have to conduct a public hearing within 60 days.

It would end after six months unless the county commission acts to extend it or make it permanent, said Jerrod MacPherson, Benton County planning manager.

The moratorium would cover the four zoning types where cannabis production and processing is authorized, including GMA agriculture, rural lands 20, light industrial and heavy industrial.

Benton County has struggled with the unexpected consequences of recreational marijuana for much of the year.

Washington voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012. It passed statewide by 56 percent to 44 percent.

Locally, the numbers were reversed, with 56 percent of Benton County voters saying no.

Anti-cannabis sentiments led many local cities and Franklin County to enact moratoriums to keep production, processing and sales at bay.

Benton County did not take that step. Lawyers told the county it could be illegal and lead to costly litigation.

Even after that advice was relaxed, the county took no steps to ban marijuana production, processing or sales, allowing state-licensed stores and producers to operate in unincorporated areas as well as Prosser, which allowed it.

The tension between for and against erupted in West Richland last spring, when word emerged that the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board was allowing The Garden LLC, operating as Nirvana Cannabis Co., to transfer its retail license from Prosser to an unincorporated property on Arena Road just outside West Richland.

A determined group of neighbors has vowed to stop the business through legislation or litigation, enlisting support from West Richland city leaders and Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, among others.

The county said it can’t stop the store from opening without risking litigation, but it put a moratorium on future retail shops during the summer.

In October, cannabis opponents turned their attention to the ongoing harvest season, which sent the distinctive odor of cannabis wafting across rural communities and into schools.

Finley school Superintendent Lance Hanhn called the situation “ridiculous”. Residents demanded the county pass another ban, this time on production and processing.

Local bans and moratoriums do not preclude the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board from issuing licenses, but they do keep businesses from lawfully opening.

The practice has led some would-be store operators to engage in license speculation. They secure licenses in areas with bans or moratoriums, typically over the objections of the local government, with the expectation the rules will change in the future.

The speculation is seen in retail licenses issued for addresses in Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and West Richland, where such businesses are not allowed.

The commission’s meetings are broadcast to the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick, 7122 W. Okanogan Place.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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