Richland marijuana initiative falls short, but that’s not the end of it

A citizen-led effort to remove Richland’s ban against cannabis businesses is stalled, for now.

But the conversation it started is just beginning.

More than 2,700 Richland voters signed a petition calling on the city council to either lift the ban or let voters make the call.

The city’s attorney says the petition is invalid, but Mayor Bob Thompson and Councilman Ryan Lukson say they want to hear more from citizens.

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“Twenty-seven hundred voters have an interest in the subject. We should talk about it,” said Lukson, who joined the council this year, three years after an earlier council banned cannabis businesses.

Lukson plans to bring it up at the council’s regular Tuesday meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m.

And he’s not alone. Mayor Bob Thompson said he plans to speak up as well.

“I think the council needs to address (cannabis) in some format,” he told the Herald.

Legalize Richland, an arm of the Benton County Libertarian Party, announced in April it would push Richland to lift the ban that keeps marijuana retail shops from opening in the city.

It argues citizens should be able to choose for themselves and that Richland stands to benefit from the tax revenue generated by local sales.

It tried to use a feature of the Richland charter that allows residents to submit initiatives to the city council for consideration or, failing that, force a public vote.

On Nov. 6, Legalize Richland submitted a 300-page petition with more than 4,500 signatures.

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The petition contained 2,713 valid signatures from Richland voters. That’s enough to qualify and the question of legal cannabis seemed to be headed to the city council on Dec. 4.

But the city’s attorney said the petition failed on two technical counts and the matter was not placed on the agenda without explanation.

Attorney Heather Kintzley said the petition fails the legal test because it attempts to establish zoning in the city, a power the state reserves for the elected council.

Also, it violates the state’s prohibition against multi-subject initiatives. The Legalize Richland petition does two things. It creates zones where cannabis sales would be legal and it authorizes sales.

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The group’s leaders are reviewing their options, including taking the issue to court.

Thompson, an attorney in private practice, said he’s confident Kintzley made the right call from a legal standpoint.

But he agrees that Legalize Richland has started an important conversation. Like Lukson, also an attorney, he wants the discussion to continue.

It’s been six years since Washington voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing recreational cannabis in the state.

Mid-Columbia voters overwhelmingly opposed legalization, leading Richland, Pasco, Kennewick, West Richland and Franklin County to impose moratoriums.

Benton County alone allowed cannabis-related activity in unincorporated areas such as Finley. After neighbors complained about odors and traffic, Benton County passed a moratorium prohibiting new business in the future.

Benton’s ban doesn’t apply to pre-existing retailers, producers and processors.

Thompson, who cast a losing vote against the Richland ban in his previous term, wonders if sentiments have changed since the 2012 election.

“Who knows where the community is now?” he asked.

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He wants the council to discuss it at its annual January retreat. And he’d like to measure local sentiment, possibly at the ballot box or possibly through a survey.

If there’s an advisory ballot, he would prefer a November date, when voter turnout is high and the city’s share of the election cost would be less.

The other five members of the Richland city council were not available to comment on the issue on Monday.

The three members who passed the ban in 2014 are still on the council — Sandra Kent, Brad Anderson and Terry Christensen.

Anderson voiced an interest in revisiting the ban in 2015, though the conversation went nowhere.

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Lukson and Councilman Michael Alvarez, the council’s newest members, took office this year.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514