Here's one for you: it's legal to possess marijuana in Washington these days, but it's still illegal to buy or sell it. That little paradox will likely remain in place until at least early December. Initiative 502 — which legalized recreational pot last November for anyone over 21 — gave the state's liquor control board about a year to sort out the regulatory details for the new industry.
In the meantime, Washington municipalities are inching closer to the legal pot era as best they can. Last week, Spokane's city council (unanimously) approved a new ordinance that puts local codes in line with the new state law, and its planners released a map of potential retail areas. Residents came out in droves to a public forum hosted by state officials; the event had to relocate to the city's convention center to accommodate a crowd of nearly 500 people.
"There's a lot of interest in this," says Ken Pelton, a city planner for Spokane. "There's a lot of people hoping to start businesses that will sell marijuana."
Pelton and others in the planning department drafted the (preliminary) retail map [PDF] to show areas where the growth, production, and sale of recreational pot might be permitted. The map is based on a land use structure for collective gardens that's been in place since the state approved medical marijuana a few years back. As currently drawn, the map's pot districts are found near the city's international airport and its eastern border (conveniently shaded in green):
The new state law [PDF] draws some general guidelines about marijuana retail: among other things, it prevents the state liquor board from issuing a license to retailers within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, transit stations, or entertainment centers where residents under 21 might congregate. Pelton says the Spokane draft retail map hasn't been filtered for those directives just yet. Any marijuana seller who wants to locate in one of the green areas would still need to abide the state law on spacing.
"If these aren't properly sited, there's a lot of potential for impacts to neighborhoods," he says. "From a zoning standpoint, it may be similar to something like how we regulate adult uses. There's a separation requirement of 750 feet from residential areas, schools, churches — things like that."
Spokane is plenty familiar with the (let's say) stickier side of state-sanctioned marijuana distribution. After the passage of the medical marijuana initiative, about 40 dispensaries popped up across the city in short time; at one point they reportedly outnumbered Starbucks five-to-one. In response, Michael Ornsby, U.S. Attorney for the state's eastern district, warned stores they were in violation of federal law, and led several raids.
“Drug traffickers cannot hide behind the law by simply claiming they are medical marijuana stores,” said Ornsby in a press release at the time. "[M]any of these stores are conducting a high volume, high dollar business, far from the allegations of the operators that they are furnishing marijuana to 'patients' with debilitating medical conditions."
As a result, only about a dozen medical dispensaries exist in Spokane today. (The situation is in stark contrast to a city like Seattle, in the western part of the state, where U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan has left medical marijuana distributors alone.) Some old Spokane retailers hope things will be different this time around, and caution the recreational industry from expanding as fast as the medical one did.
The other elephant in the room, of course, is Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration. As Jordan Weissmann reported last fall, federal prosecutors might leave Washington alone if the state sets up a well-regulated industry. Governor Jay Inslee left a recent meeting with Holder encouraged that the state should proceed with the initiative as approved by state voters.
Still there are lots of questions to be answered, says Pelton, the planner. The map marked Spokane's latest step toward a legal marijuana industry, but the city is still awaiting direction from state officials. One of the biggest outstanding questions is what type of retailers will get involved in the trade: pot vending machines, or small cottage growers, or giants like Walgreens.
"I think communities all over the state are doing the same thing — trying to figure out the next step," Pelton says. "The map was just that: a map. It really didn’t delve into all the issues. That's still to come."