YAKIMA, Wash. — The Yakima City Council has decided to support efforts to seek state tax revenue raised from marijuana sales.
The council made the decision Friday following a hectic 48 hours in which Mayor Micah Cawley’s signature accidentally appeared on a letter from other mayors statewide supporting the measure, even though the entire council hadn’t heard the proposal. Friday’s special meeting was called specifically to address the issue.
Some council members initially planned to object to the proposal but voted unanimously to support it after they heard arguments from city staff and police that legalized marijuana will strain public resources.
At the heart of the debate was whether it would be hypocritical for the council, which banned the growing, processing and sale of marijuana within city limits, to seek tax revenue raised by businesses in cities that do allow them. But the five council members in attendance agreed with staff that easier access statewide could have a local impact on law enforcement.
“I’m prepared to defend cries of hypocrisy from now until whenever,” Councilman Dave Ettl said.
City Manager Tony O’Rourke said he took the blame for accidentally authorizing Cawley’s signature on a letter published Wednesday by the Association of Washington Cities, asking the state to share recreational marijuana taxes with cities.
“On this matter we dropped the ball. We’re sorry for that,” O’Rourke said.
Some council members, including Rick Ensey, were at first opposed to endorsing the letter, but said they had a change of heart.
“At first I thought it was hypocritical, but I can see the logic behind it,” Ensey said.
Councilwomen Kathy Coffey and Maureen Adkison were absent.
The request for state tax revenue is open-ended with regard to whether it would come from state sales taxes or the 25 percent excise tax levied on growers, processors and retailers prior to sale. More than 80 percent of revenues from the excise tax were supposed to be earmarked for health, prevention and public safety programs under Initiative 502.
Possession of certain amounts of marijuana and marijuana-infused products remains legal for those 21 years or older everywhere in the state except on federal and tribal lands. Public consumption and driving under the influence of marijuana remain illegal under state law.
Yakima police Chief Dominic Rizzi said marijuana-related traffic offenses take officers more time because they require blood draws. Rizzi said it would be unfair for the state to not share the available revenue with all localities because marijuana-related offenses will increase across the state.
“It’s an unfunded mandate that has funding,” Rizzi said.
The city had no specific estimate of how much crime might increase with legal recreational marijuana. There were 360 DUI cases in Yakima in 2013, 72 of which involved blood draws that found 37 individuals under the influence of marijuana and eight under both marijuana and alcohol.
Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director for the ACLU of Washington and author of the initiative, said the law was written to dedicate funds to statewide public health and safety efforts, but she worries local governments are trying to skim some of that to boost their general funds.
She said it is hypocritical for cities that banned pot businesses to seek funds generated from those businesses. Holcomb said the Yakima City Council only contributed to the problems law enforcement may face when it voted in January to ban pot businesses.
“They’re continuing to contribute to the problems of illegal sales and illegal activity, and they should not benefit from continuing to contribute to this problem,” Holcomb said in a telephone interview from Seattle.
O’Rourke said the city will spend $30.8 million on police, prosecutors, jail and court costs this year, but those services will only generate $10.5 million. The rest comes from the city’s general fund, and O’Rourke said more will be needed as marijuana becomes more available.
“Criminal enterprises will try to take advantage of the system,” O’Rourke said. “Yakima is not out of line.”