Like it or not — and count us among those who aren’t thrilled about it — the state’s legalization of marijuana is moving forward. Two developments within the past 10 days have pushed the state further down the road of allowing the growing, sale and use of marijuana.
Late in August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Washington Gov. Jay Inslee that the federal government will not sue to stop voter-approved legalization laws in Washington and Colorado. Instead, the Justice Department said it would focus on eight enforcement priorities, including keeping pot out of the hands of minors, keeping the drug from being diverted to other states and setting up a clear and transparent tax system. This was good news to supporters of Initiative 502, which state voters approved in 2012, as the pot-legalization measure addressed many of those concerns.
Then last week, the state Liquor Control Board approved up to 334 retail locations for pot sales in the state; up to 14 of those could be in Yakima County. They would need to adhere to zoning regulations that prevent them from opening near schools, parks, etc., and they cap production and the number of licenses that individual entities can hold. The state plans to start issuing licenses on Dec. 1, and stores would open in the middle of next year.
But many Yakima Valley municipalities are moving slowly. Justice Department assurances aside, local officials note that the use, sale, distribution and growing of marijuana remain a federal crime. The elected officials’ reticence reflects the sentiments of local voters; the initiative did win 55.7 percent of the vote statewide and a majority in five counties east of the Cascades, but Yakima County voters rejected it 57.8-42.2 percent.
Yakima County and the city of Sunnyside have enacted six-month moratoriums on recreational marijuana grows and businesses, partly to figure out zoning and operational regulations, partly out of concern over the conflict with federal law, and partly because some elected officials don’t care for legalization and wish it would go away.
It’s true, the state and feds have yet to find their way out of a legal and financial thicket. On the latter issue, federally insured banks don’t want to deal with marijuana money; the Treasury Department requires a bank to report whenever it thinks it has handled pot-related money. Holder told Inslee that the Justice Department is looking into the issue, signaling a change may come soon.
Moratoriums buy municipalities some time while the state and feds sort things out, but they won’t let local governments get out of dealing with a law that they don’t like. Municipalities need to use that moratorium window to draft clear and well-defined regulations about use, sale and growing of the plants. The time and effort spent now can avert a costly legal challenge later.
And speaking of rules, state officials acknowledge that the state’s medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 1998, is a vague, regulatory mess. Legislators would do well to address this issue come January; one way would be to wrap the use, sale, distribution and growing of medical marijuana under the provisions of Initiative 502, which did not address the medical marijuana issue.
The Yakima Herald-Republic opposed I-502, largely out of concern about the conflict with federal law and the legal complications that would ensue. But the voters spoke, and now it falls on local governments to make the law work.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.