Pot Businesses Restless Over Moratorium

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People looking to cash in on legalized recreational marijuana all want the same thing from Lewis County, but in the face of a third industry-wide moratorium by the county commission, their reactions are far from uniform.  

Lewis County commissioners voted 3-0 in Monday morning’s weekly public meeting to renew the moratorium against businesses dealing primarily with marijuana, making it the second straight extension of a ban first passed in December 2013. 

Last December the county adopted a moratorium to give the Lewis County Planning Commission time to perform a land use analysis and create zoning for recreational marijuana businesses. Despite meeting twice a month, the board still hasn’t come to an agreement. 

Responses from the commissioners’ constituents hoping to get into the industry range from frustrated to optimistic. Some are weighing their options, while others and their attorneys are looking to the courts for answers. 

“It’s just a big mess,” said Cania Lee, an Ethel farmer hoping to start producing marijuana on his property. Lee said pressure from his bank and the county’s inaction have made him consider selling his license.

“There’s been so much wait and so many roadblocks I feel a lot of these applicants are already quitting,” Lee added.

Chris Crew, an attorney focusing on marijuana laws, said he’ll likely file a claim for damages against the county on behalf of a client he refused to name because the county is preventing that person’s business from operating when it could be otherwise.

He argues that people cleared by the Washington State Liquor Control Board — the state body charged with regulating marijuana — were given a valuable license, but the county’s actions have stripped them of value. 

“We’re just saying they’re banning it. They’re claiming it’s a moratorium,” Crew said. “I’m not too concerned with how they characterize it … Whether it’s a ban or a moratorium, if they’re taking all the value, (the license holders) need to be compensated.”

The city of Centralia was sued earlier this year by a potential recreational marijuana retailer RIU420 on the grounds that the second iteration of its moratorium was a de facto ban. 

Although all three county commissioners are against allowing recreational marijuana, none are ready to move to an outright ban. 

Commissioner-elect Gary Stamper couldn’t be reached for comment. 

Outgoing County Commissioner Lee Grose said he believes extending the moratorium would shield the county from potential lawsuits.

Grose and fellow commissioner Bill Schulte both said they want clarification from the state legislature, the courts or the federal government before moving one direction or another.

“You’re never in a good position too far out in front of one of these to ban or approve,” Schulte said. 

However, none of the commissioners are worried about getting sued.

“We’ve been very upfront we’re not going to approve it until it’s approved by the federal government,” Grose said. 

The commissioners said they worry about the impacts legalized marijuana would have on Lewis County. Schulte and commissioner Edna Fund stressed finances and personnel costs to the sheriff’s office. Grose stressed his belief that marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs and a life of crime.

“It makes you dependent on a drug you will go out and kill for if you have to,” he said. “We know those people are a disruption onto society to buy their drugs whether it’s marijuana or something else. If they need to go rape, steal and plunder, they’ll do it.”

Gabe Koth, co-owner of Wild Mint LLC, said that’s the type of mentality people in the industry have to overcome. 

“It’s not nearly as evil as what people have been taught to believe,” he said. “It’s not much different than a tomato plant; you give it sunlight and food and it grows.” 

Koth and his partner Summer Chapman were approved by the Liquor Control Board for a 1,400-square-foot grow operation. They believe they can soothe the fears of the community and county officials through dialogue and process participation. 

Chapman said it’s up to industry pioneers like her and Koth to show that approved marijuana producers “don’t fit into the criminal category.”

“I’ll be honest; we’ve felt the tone of the meetings have changed a bit,” Chapman said. 

Although they’re clients of Crew, neither would comment on suing the county. Chapman only said they wouldn’t “ride this out for years and years.”

Tad Seaton, a retail marijuana license holder in both Kennewick and Lewis County at large, isn’t so patient. 

Despite being hit with roadblocks in both municipalities, he’s going over their heads and suing the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

“We could continue suing cities and counties until we’re blue in the face, but I don’t think any judges will rule for us because it’s all political — they get elected, too,” he said. “But you might get a ruling in a higher level.”

Seaton and his attorney Elizabeth Hallock argue that the Liquor Control Board isn’t, and never planned on, enforcing its statewide jurisdiction but still took money from applicants in localities that were hostile to marijuana. They also claim the board is staying silent while the state attorney general’s office makes “a political decision to defend (banning) localities.”

“I’m forcing the Liquor Control Board to show up and tell us where they stand,” Hallock said. “If they knew they wouldn’t enforce the law but took his money anyway, that’s fraud.”

Hallock also represented Perry Nelson, the proprietor of RIU420, when he sued the city of Centralia.

Lewis County Community Development Director Lee Napier, whose department oversees the Planning Commission, couldn’t be reached for comment on the story before press time.

Aside from their concerns over crime and the legal status of marijuana, officials from Lewis County maintain that they need more time to create zoning that caters to the area’s rural character. 

Seaton doesn’t buy it. 

“It’s ridiculous and insulting to most people’s intelligence to say, ‘We need more time’ when there’s already zoning in place and restrictions in place the state set for them,” he said. “I know this works because it’s happening.” 

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