Marijuana moratorium continues to raise concerns

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson speaks about a proposal for a six-month moratorium on retail marijuana stores on Whidbey and Camano Islands.  - Janis Reid / The Record
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson speaks about a proposal for a six-month moratorium on retail marijuana stores on Whidbey and Camano Islands.
— image credit: Janis Reid / The Record

Island County commissioners voted last week to postpone a moratorium on new marijuana-related businesses for a second time.

In a rare moment, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a Democrat, and Commissioner Kelly Emerson, a conservative Republican, agreed to hold off on adopting the moratorium because staff and resident questions remained unanswered. Commissioner Jill Johnson dissented, saying she was ready to move the moratorium forward as-is.

The commissioners voted 2-1 to table the action until 1 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13 during their regular work session.

The proposed moratorium is in response to the passage of the state law created last year by I-502 which legalized recreational marijuana and comes with many restrictions, but how those rules translate at a local level remains unclear. The production and distribution of medical marijuana is already legal.

Several local medical marijuana growers and prospective business people told the board they were upset about the proposed moratorium at Monday’s public hearing. Heated comments and discussion have led the board to ant to postpone and wait for guidance from the state.

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

Planning Director David Wechner told commissioners that he and Island County Sheriff Mark Brown met with Liquor Control Board representative Blair Smith on Tuesday, but said many of the county’s questions remained unanswered.

Wechner said that if an existing medical marijuana grower wished to expand into recreational growing it appeared that it was possible for the grower to apply for a second license under the new law.

The question remains whether or not the product can be grown or processed at the same location, Wechner said.

Also in question was whether the Liquor Control Board would still approve applications in areas with moratoriums, or would they simply deny them. Local entrepreneurs expressed fears at Monday’s public hearing that there would be a finite number of licenses that might be lost to Island County if the moratorium is put in place.

Wechner, who is expecting some answers from the state via email, reminded the board that this was the same agency that regulates alcohol and anticipates they will follow the same administrative path. It is also expected that the I-502 law and the medical marijuana law, 6951A, would be combined in the future by the legislature, Wechner said.

Price Johnson proposed an amended moratorium that would exempt growers, who have incurred costs in preparation to grow marijuana once their application is approved. The state begins accepting applications Nov. 18 and applicants have a 30-day window in which to apply initially.

Under Price Johnson’s proposal, the moratorium would still apply to distributors and store fronts.

“We have growers now,” Price Johnson said.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said she felt there needed to be more community discussion during a moratorium about the issue before growers were allowed to start planting.

“This growing is not the same growing as your neighbor growing corn,” Johnson said, in post-meeting interview. “This is a step we need to take.”

Emerson agreed that the moratorium should be delayed but it was unclear whether or not she would favor Price Johnson’s piecemeal moratorium. She could not be reached by deadline for comment. Emerson, who would have to break the tie, said she would be away from Wednesday’s meeting at a conference but would be willing to participate via phone to enter her vote.


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