Opinion: Don’t shut out the public, Richland. Give them a chance to be heard on marijuana

Due to Oregon’s pesticide testing regime for marijuana and its high value, growers of more conventional crops worry about getting blamed for contamination that renders the mind-altering flowers unsalable.
Due to Oregon’s pesticide testing regime for marijuana and its high value, growers of more conventional crops worry about getting blamed for contamination that renders the mind-altering flowers unsalable. AP

Controversial issues need more discussions in public, not less.

A group called Legalize Richland has found a way to force the city to reconsider its ban on marijuana retail sales and production, and this is sure to be a hot topic in the community.

We were under the impression the group’s petition would be presented to the Richland City Council at its Tuesday meeting, but as of Friday the issue was not on the agenda. As it turns out, the city attorney is recommending the petition is not valid to move forward.

It would have been helpful for the public to know this as soon as she responded to the petition sponsors on Nov. 21.

The city council discussed the petition at its Nov. 20 pre-meeting workshop that’s not recorded for the public. The public should have been informed about the discussion ahead of time.

Supporters still hope to have their chance to speak to the council on the issue.

Residents on both sides surely will want to hear the thoughts of their elected representatives.

As we all know, our state’s voters approved legalized marijuana in 2012. But as is the case much of the time in our lopsided state, Eastern Washington voters largely opposed the initiative, but the west side carried the vote to approval all the same.

Local governments have struggled with how to manage the marijuana industry and the voice of their voters, most placing bans on retail businesses and production.

The state continues to approve licenses for area entrepreneurs, but cities and counties in many jurisdictions refuse to issue them business licenses.

Legalize Richland used the city’s own law on itself.

In an uncommon twist, voters in the city can alter laws through referendums. Those pushing to overturn the marijuana ban found the path and seized it, gathering more than enough valid signatures to require the council to consider their petition.

Richland residents who support lifting the ban say they shouldn’t be forced to drive to Finley or Prosser to get a product that is legal to buy and use in the state. Those communities have legally operating marijuana retailers who got their businesses up and running before retroactive bans on additional businesses were in place.

While legalized marijuana seemed scary to many in our community based on their vote on the initiative, in general it seems that attitude is loosening.

We’ve had a handful of marijuana businesses operating in the region for years without much drama once they opened. Some issues with production facilities and odors during harvest have been the worst of it.

Three businesses in Richland have state-approved licenses but can’t open because of the city’s ban.

But that could change if the council chooses to lift the ban. If petition had been deemed valid it could have gone to a public vote Feb. 12 if the council didn’t act.

Council members are elected to make tough decisions. In Richland, the existing ban was approved by a 3-2 vote. The mayor was against the ban as was another councilman; the three who voted against it remain on the council, and the position of two new members is not clear.

We’re always fans of letting the voters decide for themselves on controversial issues. But we also like to see our leaders listen and reconsider their positions when presented with new information.

It’s clear that 20 percent of voters from the prior election – the required amount for the petition to move forward – want to see a change.

While that’s a minority, they did their homework, followed the rules and deserve to be heard.

What remains to be seen is if the council or the voters will have the final say on this challenging community issue.

Richland City Council members should embrace the high interest and ensure there is plenty of time for public discussion.

After all, transparency and the desire to hear people out on issues such as the Duportail Bridge were key complaints during the last election for council positions.