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Benton County says 'No' to the grow. That's not the end of it

The Benton County Commission voted Tuesday to ban new marijuana production and processing facilities, joining Franklin County and the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Prosser, Richland and West Richland.
The Benton County Commission voted Tuesday to ban new marijuana production and processing facilities, joining Franklin County and the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Prosser, Richland and West Richland. Tri-City Herald

The Benton County Commission voted Tuesday to ban all new production and processing of marijuana.

In a pair of votes, the commission barred new producers and processors from moving to the county, restricted the growth of existing operators and gave Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher more authority to enforce nuisance and odor rules.

The ban, which took effect immediately, grandfathered in the 50-plus licensed operators in the county's unincorporated areas.

Outdoor growers may move operations indoors as long as they don't expand the size of their crops. They could be forced to move indoors if wafting odors bother neighbors.

The new rules outlaw growing cooperatives and compel medical marijuana users and their caretakers to move their plants indoors, a step many critics called a costly and unfair burden on cancer patients, veterans fighting stress disorders and people with other ailments.

"We hope it doesn't divide," said Commission Chairman Jerome Delvin, who voted to expand the sheriff's role but cast a losing vote against the ban. Commissioners Shon Small and Jim Beaver favored both changes.

The move follows a year of bitter debate about the role of legal marijuana in Benton County and six years after Washington voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing the drug statewide.

Marijuana mature plant
The Benton County Commission voted Tuesday to ban all new marijuana production and processing, effective immediately. File Tri-City Herald

For more than two hours, the sides took turns at the microphone, alternately talking about how marijuana operations have harmed them and their families or how legalized marijuana is an empowering economic tool and delivers much-needed medication.

One man who works at a Grandview cannabis growing operation described how he eked out a meager existence for his family before he began his current job. The cannabis farm pays generously — enough to support his family and take his son to the movies.

"I'm proud of what I do at our farm and I'm proud of what the farm has done for my family," Justin Marquez told the commission, urging it to reject the pot ban.

He had an ally of sorts in Kennewick City Councilman Bill McKay. Like Marquez, McKay opposed the pot ban, but for different reasons.

"I don't think (the ban) goes far enough," said McKay.

Marijuana supporters were disappointed by the vote but are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

"They threw the baby out with the bathwater," said Gene Mercer, a Finley businessman who sold some of the land developed by commercial cannabis greenhouses.

Mercer favored a more nuanced approach to solving problems, such as dealing with the harvest-related odors without eliminating the crop altogether.

Mercer said he'd like to see a countywide vote on the issue. However, referendums and initiatives are not allowed under Benton County's form of government.

Referendums are allowed in Richland and the Libertarian Party of Benton County is already trying to repeal the city's long-standing marijuana ban.

Legalize Richland is collecting signatures in a bid to ask the city council to repeal its ban. Failing that, it wants to put the matter before voters in November.

Referendums aren't the only ballot box outlet.

Commissioner Shon Small's commission seat is up for re-election this year and filing week begins on May 14. Mercer said marijuana supporters hope to run a challenger for the post that pays $107,000 a year. No one has yet announced plans to challenge Small.

Marijuana grow file
The Benton County Commission voted Tuesday morning to ban new marijuana production and processing, joining Franklin County and the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Prosser, Richland and West Richland. Tri-City Herald file

Kennewick Mayor Pro Tem Steve Lee, who owns Finley's Green2Go Recreational cannabis retail store with his wife Jesse, laughed off rumors he'll back someone to challenge Small.

But he said he's fielded calls from advocates who want to take action. Lee said he's been steering people toward the Benton County elections department so potential candidates can learn more if they want to run for office.

Benton County traces its conflicted relationship with legal marijuana to 2012.

Unlike most of its neighbors, Benton County did not embrace a local ban or moratorium. As a result, the county's unincorporated communities became home to all of the region's legal marijuana retail outlets, growing operations and processors.

The county banned new marijuana retail outlets in November and placed a six-month moratorium against new producers and processors in December.

Tuesday's vote replaced the interim ban with a permanent one.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell
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