Richland could be the first of the Tri-Cities to open a retail marijuana store if one local group gets its way.
A signature drive kicks off Friday — on 420, the day known as the marijuana holiday.
The newly formed Legalize Richland, an offshoot of the Benton County Libertarian Party, is taking advantage of a little-known feature in the city charter that allows citizens to send measures to the council or ballot box.
It's similar to the statewide initiative process that's brought about tax relief, and, ironically, legalized pot in Washington.
Most cities don't offer that option to their citizens. Richland officials believe it may be the first time it's ever been tried.
If the referendum succeeds, at least one retailer with a state license to sell marijuana in Richland says his store at Horn Rapids could open immediately.
"Why are we sending money somewhere else?" asked Ryan Cooper, party chairman, who said people should have the option to choose for themselves if they want to buy cannabis.
Richland's council banned marijuana-related activities on a 3-2 vote in 2014 after Washington voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana two years earlier.
The measure was unpopular locally, leading Richland, along with Kennewick, Pasco, West Richland and Franklin County, to enact bans on retail stores, growing, processing and community pot gardens.
Benton County did not initially ban marijuana, but is weighing a permanent after-the-fact moratorium now after complaints arose about the concentration of activities in unincorporated areas such as Finley and near West Richland.
Amy Hill, who is leading the petition drive for Legalize Richland on behalf of the Libertarians, said referendum is about equity under state law, jobs and freedom to choose.
"I see all this opportunity," said Hill, a Richland resident who farms in Finley with her husband. She clarified that she grows leafy greens, not cannabis.
Legalize Richland takes the view that the Tri-Cities is Washington's only metro area without a legal marijuana outlet, saying Finley's Green2Go recreational store run by Kennewick Mayor Pro Tem Steve Lee and his wife, Jesse, is too remote for many residents.
"Technically, the three cities do not have a shop," Hill said.
Legalize Richland is taking advantage of the city charter's referendum process, giving citizens the right to initiate or repeal rules by initiative or referendum. It needs 2,650 signatures, or 25 percent of the voter turnout from the 2017 general election.
Once the city clerk validates the petition, the city council has 30 days to enact it.
If it doesn't, the matter goes to voters. Legalize Richland will be required to comply with the election reporting requirements of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission once it submits its petitions to the city.
The petition drive formally launches during Legalize Richland's "420 Rally for Liberty" event from 4 to 5 p.m. April 20 at the corner of John Dam Plaza and George Washington Way.
Hill, anticipating the city council will not embrace legal weed, expects the referendum will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
A simple majority "yes" vote would legalize sales beginning in January. The referendum is only concerned with marijuana sales, not cultivation or processing.
Even if it succeeds, legal pot cold be short-lived. The same charter that gives citizens the right to legislate through referendum gives the city council authority to reinstate the rules after a year.
Hill isn't concerned, saying it would be political folly to interfere with operating businesses. In Richland, a majority of the city council stands for election in odd-numbered years.
"That would give us time to get people onto city council who wouldn't do that," she said.
An interesting question for the ballot
Richland Mayor Bob Thompson wasn't familiar with the Legalize Richland effort, but said legalization could be an interesting ballot question.
He said the city remains mindful of its dependence on federal spending on the Hanford clean up and at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. With that in mind, it has maintained the moratorium on marijuana, which remains a Schedule 1 drug and illegal at the federal level.
But he acknowledged the changing political winds. Though U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has moved to enforce federal law, President Trump recently vowed to leave regulation of marijuana to states in a conversation with Colorado's Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.
The president's comments contradict Sessions' crackdown on marijuana, announced in January, and it's unclear how the Department of Justice will reconcile the issue. A change in the government's posture could sway some council members, he said.
Thompson said he's never seen Richland citizens use the referendum process in his 20-plus years on the council.
We're ready to open tomorrow
Three businesses have secured licenses to open marijuana retail outlets from the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board. None have opened due to the city's prohibition but at least one is ready. Hill said none are supporting the Legalize Richland campaign.
"We're ready to open tomorrow," said Tom Bates of Washington State Cannabis Co., which has a license to operate at 2415 Robertson drive in the Horn Rapids Business Park.
Bates said the store is built out, insured and secured. It just needs a final inspection, business license from the city and inventory to open. The store is currently licensed for recreational marijuana but Bates said it will also secure a medical marijuana license.
Bates called Richland "a good area," but said Washington Cannabis will dot all the "i"s and cross all the "ts"s before opening.
"We're going to do everything right," he said.
The other two licenses were issued to Gringo Caliente and Satori., which both give an address of 1011 Queensgate Dr., a car wash near the intersection of Keene Drive.
The individuals associated with the licenses could not be reached about their plans. The car wash has what appears to be a small office space. A license application for Gringo Caliente hangs in the window.
Missing out on taxes?
I-502 supporters campaigned heavily on the promise of new tax revenue through legalization, and Legalize Richland is following suit.
The state slaps a 37 percent excise tax on marijuana sales, on top of the roughly 8.6 percent local sales tax. This year, the excise tax will generate about $400 million. The state will distribute just $15 million of that to local governments.
Benton County's share of the excise tax has climbed from negligible in 2015, 2016 and 2017 to a measurable share of its total budget this year. For the first three months of 2018, it received nearly $142,000, or nearly 1.5 percent of its total revenue.
Hill said that even if the excise taxes don't flow to local governments, the sales taxes do.
"We get some back. You can't say we're not going to get any," she said.
Legalize Richland estimated Richland could receive $150,000 or more a year for the city. Cooper, the party chair, said he derived the estimate from taxes coming to Walla Walla.
The Washington Department of Revenue said it is not able to break out how much marijuana-related sales tax money flows to individual cities and counties.
Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell