Pasco, Richland, Kennewick grapple with medical pot gardens

Richland, Kennewick and Pasco city councils Tuesday continued to grapple with how best to manage a new state law allowing authorized patients to form collective gardens to grow medical marijuana.

Each of the cities in July adopted a six-month moratorium on marijuana gardens to give them breathing room to sort out how to apply zoning and business licensing regulations, taxation and public safety implications.

The Pasco council voted Tuesday to extend its moratorium to a full year in the hopes the state Legislature might make changes to what Councilwoman Rebecca Francik described as "flawed legislation."

Richland also will consider extending its moratorium while it works through the issue, but in the meantime, had a public hearing Tuesday to solicit public comments about the prospect of collective gardens.

Patients with certain medical conditions, like terminal illnesses or severe chronic pain, have been able to get authorizations to use marijuana as a form of medical treatment since a voter-approved initiative passed in 1998.

The original initiative has been amended a couple of times by the Legislature, most notably during the 2011 session with the bill allowing collective gardens in the state, even though it remains illegal under federal law to grow or possess marijuana.

Richland City Attorney Tom Lampson said confusion remains about the law because of a partial veto by Gov. Chris Gregoire -- including a portion that would have created a system of state-regulated dispensaries -- when she signed some of the bill into law.

Her rationale was that portions of the law would put state employees in jeopardy of federal prosecution.

But the law as signed kept intact a portion allowing patients to grow up to 45 marijuana plants in a shared garden, with a limit of 15 per patient.

Richland's hearing drew a handful of commentors -- all of whom were in favor of having the gardens and some who also would like to see dispensaries within city limits.

Resident Jeanne Gardin told the council that allowing a centralized marijuana garden and dispensary would give the city the opportunity to help patients in pain while also bringing in revenue and keeping the drug under control.

She suggested the city tax marijuana crops and require growers to buy business licenses, and to have 24-hour surveillance cameras and two armed security officers to reduce the potential for crime.

But if there were crime, police would only have to respond to one location, Gardin said.

"It would reduce crime in the city because those with a card wouldn't have to go to drug dealers," she said.

Chet Biggerstaff, who previously has petitioned the council under the banner of the Three Rivers Collective to allow medical marijuana gardens and dispensaries, told the council it should look to King County for examples of how to create systems that work.

"There's no reason why we can't have this here," he said. "There's no reason why our patients should have to go to the streets or out of town."

Catherine Sevenich said Richland should have compassion for its residents who are suffering, and noted that she's aware of no doctor in Benton County who will prescribe pain medications to people on Medicaid.

"I feel the city must consider welfare and safety of our sickest members and not send them to drug dealers," she said.

A public hearing in Kennewick on Tuesday elicited no public testimony.

Kennewick City Attorney Lisa Beaton said an ordinance will be presented to the council at its next meeting to retain the moratorium and create a draft work plan to develop zoning regulations for the collective gardens.

The goal will be to complete the zoning regulations recommendations and present them to the council to consider before the six-month moratorium is up. The moratorium was approved July 19.

Kennewick Councilman Bob Parks questioned how the state can pass legislation that conflicts or supersedes federal law.

Beaton said that, yes, state law is in conflict with federal law, but the city isn't able to take action that is contrary to state law.

"As a city we're stuck kind of between a rock and a hard place," she said.

She also said that simply because the city adopts zoning regulations on collective gardens, it doesn't mean the city's still not violating federal laws.

Kennewick Councilman Paul Parish asked: "If the state can circumvent the federal government, can the council do the same with the state?"

Beaton said "erring on the side of caution, my response would be no."