County council reviews its ban on marijuana shops
With nearby jurisdictions legalizing recreational cannabis and receiving tax money, Clark County has begun re-examining its policy banning marijuana businesses in unincorporated places such as Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek.
Clark County has prohibited recreational marijuana stores in unincorporated areas since sales were legalized. Meanwhile, recreational pot shops have sprung up in Vancouver and Battle Ground, which don’t have similar restrictions, and Oregon voters legalized the drug in 2014.
Council Chair Marc Boldt said that the county is now considering if it’s worth losing out on cannabis tax revenue and if the county might be able to provide more effective regulations by lifting the ban.
On Wednesday, Clark County took a step toward possibly re-evaluating its policies during a work session where councilors heard from law enforcement and county staff, who described the current regulatory framework as well as the effects of Washington voters legalizing cannabis in 2012.
During the session, members of the council expressed varying degrees of reservation about the proposed change.
“My wish is I wouldn’t be in this spot,” said Boldt, speaking after the meeting.
Although the county council is considering a change to its cannabis policy, the decision might be made for it by the courts. The case involves Sticky’s Pot Shop, a store that operates in Hazel Dell in defiance of the ban.
John Larson, the owner of the shop, opened the store and challenged the county’s ban in Cowlitz County Superior Court in 2014. Last year, the Hazel Dell retailer was closed for defying the ban. But in June, a Superior Court judge ruled that the shop could reopen while it appealed its case. In October, an appellate court heard oral arguments on the legality of the ban and the county is currently awaiting a decision.
“We are very pleased that the county has chosen to reconsider its current position on the bans,” said Larson. “All we have ever wanted is to exercise our license right and go about our business.”
Community Development Director Marty Snell said the county has spent tens of thousands of dollars litigating the Sticky’s case.
Cities get money
Because Battle Ground and Vancouver allow cannabis retailers, they receive distributions of excise tax revenue from sales. According to numbers included in a county white paper, Battle Ground, which has two active retailers, received $62,083 in distributions for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. Vancouver, which has 14 active retailers, received $1.3 million.
During the session, the county was presented with estimates showing that Clark County would have received $468,538 for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 had it allowed cannabis sales.
“It doesn’t seem to produce very much in the scheme of things,” said Councilor Eileen Quiring during the meeting.
Councilor Jeanne Stewart also expressed unease about moving toward lifting restrictions on cannabis to generate revenue.
The council also heard differing perspectives from law enforcement and public health on cannabis legalization.
Dr. Alan Melnick, county director of Public Health and Clark County health officer, presented data from the Healthy Youth Survey, a survey administered by the state agencies to Washington adolescents.
“Since before and after retail (cannabis) became available in Clark County youth risk has not increased,” said Melnick. For example, the percentage of Clark County 10th-graders reporting any marijuana use in the past 30 days decreased from 19.5 percent in 2012 to 15.6 percent in 2016.
Melnick also said the survey’s results showed that adolescents reported that it became more difficult to get marijuana after it became legal. (As with liquor sales, you must be 21 or older to buy marijuana products.)
While Melnick said that adolescents are viewing the drug as less harmful, according to the survey, he noted that this trend had been underway before legalization.
He said that there is moderate evidence that cannabis use is associated with substance abuse disorder, but he added that “there are no data that address whether cannabis” causes people to use other substances. He also cited survey data for adults and adolescents showing that driving under the influence of marijuana has not risen since legalization.
“According to the surveys, driving under the influence (of cannabis) has not increased,” he said.
John Horch, a commander in the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force, offered a different perspective. He said that since legalization, law enforcement has received more marijuana-related complaints, including backyard grows that produce odors, threats to neighbors who complain, as well as sales to youth. He said the task force has even gotten complaints from cannabis retailers in Vancouver about illicit drug dealing outside their stores.
According to numbers presented in a white paper, the task force received 33 marijuana-related complaints between August 2015 and February 2016. Since then, there has been a 49 percent increase in the last seven months for a total of 112 complaints since February 2016.
Horch said that illegal butane hash oil labs, which extract a highly potent form of the drug using a potentially volatile process, are an increasing concern. Although he said law enforcement hasn’t seen one locally, labs elsewhere have caused dangerous explosions.
He said that law enforcement has found children at marijuana grows and that he’s heard from state compliance officers that it’s common for other illegal activity to take place at these locations.
Horch said that it has been “difficult sometimes” for local police to deal with liquor and cannabis board officers at the state level. He noted that the task force has complained about unregulated and illegal grows without much response. He said a large operation in Woodland took years to shut down.
In response, Brian Smith, LCB spokesman, said in an email that there’s been some turnover with officers in Clark County. He said that it’s hard to comment on the LCB’s cooperation without details but noted that the organization is “proactive and cooperative as we can be within our scope of authority” and regularly works with local government agencies.
Horch said that research shows that traffic incidents involving marijuana, including DUI arrests and traffic fatalities, have been on the rise.
While discussing prevention, Councilor Julie Olson cited numbers from an LCB report showing that cannabis retailers have a 91 percent compliance rate in catching underage sales, while alcohol retailers have only an 83 percent rate.
“The bottom line, I just want to tell you, is we need to do a lot more research on marijuana,” said Melnick. But he said that it is currently difficult to conduct research because the federal government doesn’t recognize any legitimate use for cannabis. Consequently, it has not sponsored any research.
At one point during the work session, Quiring said that members of the public in the audience seemed to know more about cannabis regulation than county staff.
Boldt said the council will hold a public hearing in January or February to get feedback from the public.
Speaking before the meeting, Olson said that “having the black market is not beneficial to anyone.”
“I don’t think in legalizing marijuana we have all these brand new marijuana users,” she said. She said the question now is what environment does the county want to have around marijuana.
Previously, Quiring had expressed concern about cannabis legalization, and during the session spoke of its potential for harm.
“I’m really concerned about making it more convenient and acceptable to have one more substance that is mind-altering,” said Stewart after the meeting.
Councilor John Blom said in a text that there is “no question that marijuana can be abused and does have negative health impacts.”
“The reality, whether we like it or not, is that it’s here in our community and we need to set policy based on the facts, not on our personal opinions,” he said.