Six years after Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana, Tri-City residents are hard-pressed to legally buy bud.
Most local jurisdictions prohibit cannabis-related businesses, citing the unpopularity of Initiative 502 — the 2012 bill that makes it legal to grow, process and sell cannabis.
But as the industry tops $1 billion in sales, two local cities are under pressure to lift city bans that critics say ignore the will of the people and keep millions in potential tax revenue out of local coffers.
Richland faces a citizen-led initiative to remove its moratorium. Now, Pasco is confronting an industry-led one.
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The Richland and Pasco efforts don’t appear to be part of a coordinated effort to reverse the dozens of bans instituted by cities and counties across Washington. The Association of Washington Cities and The Cannabis Alliance confirmed they are not aware of organized efforts or legislation that would override local rules statewide.
Both cities have been less than receptive so far, which is unsurprising given the controversy that’s engulfed Benton County.
The county did not initially ban cannabis businesses after I-502 passed, leaving the door open to retailers, processors and producers before it enacted its own bans in 2017.
In Richland and Pasco, pro-cannabis advocates say local governments are acting against their own interests, and those of the citizens who have to drive elsewhere to purchase a product that is legal in Washington.
The Richland City Council will discuss an initiative by Legalize Richland during its annual retreat Jan. 29.
Legalize Richland, an arm of the Benton County Libertarian Party, submitted more than 2,700 valid signatures Nov. 6 on a petition calling on the council to drop the ban or let voters settle the matter.
Andrue Ott, a Legalize Richland official, said it is waiting to see what the council decides at its workshop before it takes more aggressive steps to press its case.
Ott said the group has faith its representatives will hear out their constituents.
Pasco pushed by industry
In Pasco, pressure to drop the ban comes from partners in two of the four cannabis retailers authorized to open stores by the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Eric Larson of Clear Mind Cannabis and David Morgan of Lucky Leaf Co. pitched their case to the city council this month.
The response was decidedly subdued.
Mayor Matt Watkins confirmed the moratorium remains and that no council member has expressed interest in revisiting it.
Both licenses holders vowed to keep pushing.
79 cities and counties ban pot
Cannabis was a $1.4 billion industry in 2017, according to the liquor and cannabis board. The 37 percent excise tax generated nearly $318 million.
For the first half of 2018, the industry reported $534 million in sales and paid nearly $121 million in excise taxes.
Most of the cannabis-generated tax revenue is earmarked for public health programs. Local governments that allow cannabis activity take a small share.
Benton County was expected to receive nearly $260,000 in 2018.
Advocates say they hope a mostly new Pasco City Council will see things differently than the one that banned cannabis five years ago.
Five of the seven council members joined the council after the original moratorium was enacted in 2014.
“There’s a different makeup on the city council than when they placed that moratorium,” said Tom Platfoot, a Vancouver-based partner in Clear Mind Co. “Now we feel we have a better chance to get that lifted.”
Mayor Pro Tem Craig Maloney is one of the newcomers, elected in 2016.
Cannabis isn’t a priority, but the council could take it up if citizens want a review, he said.
I-502 passed statewide, largely on the strength of yes votes in the Puget Sound area. Voters in Benton and Franklin voted overwhelmingly against legal marijuana.
Statewide, 79 cities and counties bar cannabis businesses, according to Municipal Research & Service Center, a nonprofit advising local governments.
Return of Lucky Leaf?
Morgan and his wife Shilo drew headlines when they opened Lucky Leaf at King City in 2015, shortly after it received its state license, but without a city business license. The city forced it to close a few weeks later.
The dispute went to court and a judge sided with the city. The Morgans transferred the license to Spokane, where they operate a 2,500-square-foot store with 14 employees.
Still determined to operate in Pasco, Morgan said he bought a 51 percent share in one of the four Pasco licenses for $200,000.
Lucky Leaf pays $1,500 a month rent for a building on North Capitol Avenue. The empty store is near the Auto Zone warehouse in a gritty stretch near King City Truck Stop.
“I have a lot riding over there,” he said. “It was expensive to buy it.”
Lucky Leaf has a fan in Spokane city Councilwoman Karen Stratton.
The business contributed to the revitalization of its neighborhood, Stratton told Pasco officials in a letter last June.
Stratton, who identified herself as a cannabis producer, praised the Morgans for choosing an area plagued by crime, homelessness and empty buildings.
“Since 2016, when Lucky Leaf opened, new businesses have opened nearby and the area of that area of downtown continues to flourish and is experiencing less crime,” she wrote. “This is due in no small part to David and Shilo.”
Morgan said he wants the same for Pasco, his hometown. Residents who want legal cannabis have to drive to one of the three legal shops in Benton County or Tokio, in Adams County.
Or they can buy it illegally.
“All (the moratorium) does is ban jobs and tax revenue to the city,” Morgan said. “It’s not really effective in keeping cannabis out.”
Cannabis stores on hold
Platfoot said Clear Mind Cannabis won’t choose a Pasco location “until” the city lifts the moratorium and identifies the zones where stores would be allowed.
“The state issued me a license,” Platfoot said. “We just have to get the local city of Pasco to agree.”
The remaining Pasco licenses are held by Green2Go, which is owned by Kennewick Mayor Pro Tem Steve Lee and his wife Jessy; and by Thrive, which gives an address of 2526 E. Hillsboro St. for its unopen location.
Thrive’s spot is several hundred feet from Morgan’s empty building for Lucky Leaf.
Lee said he is not involved with the campaign to reverse the Pasco moratorium. Green2Go’s Pasco license was converted to a certificate, which means it does not have to maintain a physical location as long as the moratorium is in effect.
If Pasco lifts the moratorium, the certificate would revert back into a license and the store could open.
Thrive could not be reached at the number listed on its license.