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Island County pot moratorium discussion sparks courthouse ruckus

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown speaks with constituents in Coupeville Monday, following a meeting concerning a six-month moratorium on  recreational marijuana shops on Whidbey and Camano islands. - Janis Reid / The Record
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown speaks with constituents in Coupeville Monday, following a meeting concerning a six-month moratorium on recreational marijuana shops on Whidbey and Camano islands.
— image credit: Janis Reid / The Record

Tempers flared at a Monday Island County public hearing as several residents made clear their dislike of a proposed six-month moratorium on new marijuana distribution and production businesses.

As a result, Island County commissioners voted to table the action until today’s work session.

Several local business owners, some already producing medical marijuana, felt that the proposed moratorium on new businesses would put Island County behind the rest of the state, causing them to miss out on key application deadlines.

It was the intention of the board to follow suit with the City of Oak Harbor who passed its own six-month moratorium in September with no opposition.

Both moratoriums are in response to the passage of Initiative 502 last year, which legalized recreational marijuana and comes with many restrictions. How those rules translate at a local level, however, remains unclear.

Residents who spoke at the meeting said the moratorium would block their ability to start or expand their businesses. Many said they would lose licensing opportunities to neighboring counties who are moving forward more quickly. The state begins accepting applications Nov. 18.

“You don’t have the landowners side on this,” said Camano Island resident Cynthia Jensen. “I have several emails from the planning department saying that there should be no reason why I can’t use my land for I-502. Now two weeks before we are to make application, and we have a 30 day window, the rug is pulled out from under us.”

Even after the public input portion was closed, frustrated residents occasionally shouted out questions and comments to the board. Commissioner Jill Johnson had to warn them that those speaking out of turn would be asked to leave.

A few commented that they believed continuing to limit legal marijuana distribution was contributing to the crime associated with black market drugs.

“Right now, if you go by the national average, we have 16,000 who smoke marijuana in Island County,” said John Youngblood of North Oak Harbor. “They have no access to getting the marijuana except on the black market that fuels meth. You fuel the black market, you fuel all the things that go with it. Right now its just heaven for drug dealers and cartels. I’m totally against this. Dropping this in our laps at the last minute doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Jason Bohbot of Camano Island read from an article from the Huffington Post stating that the recreational marijuana market is poised to grow faster than the smart phone market. Local businesses have a right to participate in this boom, he said, and the county would benefit from the tax dollars associated with it.

“Overall, I think they are doing what they can,” Bohbot said after the meeting. “But I don’t think they understand what they are dealing with. It’s gonna be the next great business.”

Some wondered if they would be able to expand existing medical marijuana operations into recreational use. Others worried that a moratorium would delay or limit their ability to be approved for a license by the state, or if the estimated four retail licenses would be given to other counties.

“I have been planning for this all year so I could start my business the first of the year when I could get a license, and your six-month moratorium is gonna put me six months behind all the other counties who are going to flood the market and keep me out of business,” said North Whidbey resident Rocky Eggebrecht. “How is that fair to me when you guys have not done your job over the last year to get this stuff in place by the end of the year? To me that’s just irresponsible.”

Commissioners Johnson and Helen Price Johnson were unable to address many of residents concerns and agreed that they would need more information before moving forward. However, they did defend their intention to understand the regulations before allowing new businesses.

Johnson pointed out that while the state law was approved last year, the state has only provided county guidelines in recent weeks. However, she wanted to get more solid information from the Liquor Control Board and revisit the moratorium timeline.

“It’s very important to me as a commissioner to take the time to get this right,” Johnson said. “I understand people’s frustration as it appears we have had this for a year, but we have not had this for a year. The State of Washington has had this for a year, Island County has had it for 60 days.”

Price Johnson said she would advocate for a shorter moratorium period and wanted to know if the moratorium would translate into lost licenses for the county.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson was initially listening to the meeting by phone, but lost connection prior to the moratorium discussion and was excused.

After commissioners voted to table the decision, several attendees went outside. What followed was a heated discussion with Island County Sheriff Mark Brown.

Residents wanted to know how conducting a legal recreational marijuana business would be more dangerous than liquor sales or other types of high-cash businesses.

Brown said he had concerns about burglaries and money transportation.

From a public safety standpoint, Brown said it was “incumbent on us (Island County) to make sure all our ducks in a row.”

 

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