West Richland-inspired bill makes it harder to open pot shops and easier to close them

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, is pushing House Bill 1003 to make it harder to open cannabis shops and easier to close them.
Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, is pushing House Bill 1003 to make it harder to open cannabis shops and easier to close them.

Legislation inspired by a proposed West Richland pot shop received a mixed reception in Olympia on Tuesday.

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, is pushing House Bill 1003 to make it harder to open cannabis shops and easier to close them.

The Washington Association for Substance Abuse Prevention called it a welcome move to protect children.

But the agency that regulates cannabis called it unworkable and expensive during a hearing Tuesday before the House Commerce and Gaming Committee.

Chris Thompson, director of legislative relations for the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board, testified that Klippert’s bill is well-intentioned miss.

“This bill does not look to us like it is workable or affordable,” Thompson said.

The bill was inspired by Nirvana Cannabis Co.’s plan to open a retail shop in a converted residence on Arena Road near West Richland.

The location is in an unincorporated slice of Benton County that borders a West Richland neighborhood. Neighbors are furious that the state issued a license for the store, which is near a learning center, a church and a school bus stop.

State law prohibits cannabis shops within 1,000 feet of schools and other child-centered locations, but the West Richland neighborhood amenities didn’t count.

The West Richland situation prompted Benton County to ban future cannabis stores, though Nirvana’s license is grandfathered and not affected. The company has resumed renovations to the building but has not publicly commented on its plans.

Klippert’s bill tackles gap in the state’s 1,000-foot law by adding bus stops, unlicensed child care facilities and even private playgrounds to the list of activities that trigger the rule.

Nirvana would not be affected in the near term.

No pot near tots
State Rep. Brad Klippert introduced an emergency bill Wednesday aimed at stopping a cannabis shop from opening next to a West Richland preschool. File Tri-City Herald

But in the longer run, Klippert’s bill targets operating businesses as well. It would prohibit the the liquor and cannabis board from renewing licenses for cannabis stores that don’t meet the new rules, regardless of when they first opened.

Klippert said expanding the rules and targeting existing businesses will protect children from cannabis.

But Thompson said adding less formal gathering spots such as private playgrounds and school bus stops poses an administrative challenge.

There’s no way for regulators to verify where such spots are, and school bus stops aren’t fixed from year to year.

The agency calculates it would cost $2.6 million in the 2019-2021 biennium to investigate complaints generated by the proposed new rules. The cost would drop to about $2.3 million in the two subsequent budget cycles.

The figure includes five enforcement officers, a lieutenant and tech support. About a third of current license holders could be affected by the new rules in the first year, he said.

More troubling, existing businesses would be forced out. Lawsuits would be inevitable.

Seth Dawson, representing the Washington Association for Substance Abuse Prevention, urged the committee to consider the spirit of Klippert’s bill, though he acknowledged that it may need to be amended to iron out the legal issues.

“We see this as an important child protection measure,” he testified.

But the Association of Washington Cities believes the bill would “upend” the work its member cities have completed since 2012, when Washington voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana.

Sharon Swanson, government relations advocate for the association, said cities have invested in working out zoning and other issues. AWC members run the gamut, from cities that embrace and allow cannabis shops to those that do not.

Too, Swanson said the bill doesn’t address the loss of tax revenue to local government if shops are driven out.

H.B. 1003 is pending before the Commerce & Gaming Committee. Track its progress at the Legislature’s bill information site, apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.