After years of extended moratoriums and de-facto bans on marijuana grows and retail locations in unincorporated Lewis County, officials are looking to shift gears, recognizing the “cash cow” the marijuana industry has proven itself to be.
The county’s 2013 moratorium — which did not impact incorporated towns such as the Twin Cities — was extended seven times. In 2017, it was replaced by a policy that still required business owners to acquire a federal permit — impossible for locals due to the federal criminalization of the drug.
But now, Sheriff Rob Snaza says “the winds are changing,” and the county should lift its ban before the federal government legalizes marijuana — a move he predicts could clear the way for businesses to quickly move into the county. He also pointed to a recent state Supreme Court decision which ruled Washington’s drug possession law unconstitutional.
“I just think with this current legislation coming, and the atmosphere of our state legislature and the federal government … if we’re ahead of it then we can control the scenario,” Snaza told county commissioners Monday.
Previously, as the marijuana industry boomed in other parts of the state, county officials pointed to federal criminalization as one main rationale for their moratorium. In 2017, then-Commissioner Bobby Jackson also expressed personal opposition to recreational marijuana, suggesting it was a gateway to other, harder drugs.
But this week, first-term Commissioner Sean Swope expressed substantially different views.
“You can overdose on alcohol, but you can’t necessarily overdose on marijuana,” he said, noting that hops fields and vineyards exist in the county. “And there’s also the benefit of CBD.”
Even more compelling, Swope said, is how much money pot shops and commercial grows could rake in for the county. He cited a recent Crosscut article which reported that, for the first time, the industry had produced more than $1 billion in sales tax and fees for the state’s two-year budget. According to the report, most of that money goes to health care, 3% is funneled to local governments and 2.9% is used for licensing and enforcement. Some funding is also used for grants to prevent youth marijuana use.
Swope said the funding could be a revenue source for the Sheriff’s budget, and that residents are traveling over county lines to buy marijuana anyway.
“We want to support the private industry, and as we’re seeing, there’s a large industry out there. Billions of dollars just in taxes,” he said. “In five years, what have we left on the table?”
Commissioner Gary Stamper, who expressed support for the idea, said officials didn’t know years ago that the industry would be such a “cash cow.” Stamper, whose district encompasses the bulk of Lewis County’s unincorporated towns, said any policy change should be informed by community input.
Snaza reported hearing interest in retail marijuana shops in unincorporated towns Packwood, Vader and Onalaska. He also mused whether the policy would decrease the amount of illegal grows that his office deals with each year, some of which are “almost commercial grade.”
No policies have been fleshed out, although any change would likely limit the amount of permits allowed by the county. According to Snaza, the Sheriff’s Office could manage approximately five retail shops, at which point the county could assess the policy and increase that number.