The Columbian / Associated Press

Vancouver holds line on retail pot stores

Main Street Marijuana clerk Sara Kemple, right, 25, helps customers at the store in August.

A divided Vancouver City Council is on track to keep the number of recreational marijuana stores capped at six rather than allow three more stores.

A motion Monday night to amend the city’s zoning code to say, “No more than nine retail marijuana businesses shall be allowed in the city” failed by a 4-3 vote. Councilors Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Bill Turlay, Bart Hansen and Larry Smith favored keeping the current level of six stores, a limit originally set in 2013. Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilors Alishia Topper and Jack Burkman were in the minority, supporting the motion to raise the limit to nine stores.

“Why is there a cap in the first place?” Leavitt asked. “This is a business like any other. … The free market will work its way through, and some will be successful and some of them won’t.”

McEnerny-Ogle argued for waiting to make a decision until the spring, when the council would have more information about how changes to medical marijuana laws and the legalization of recreational pot in Oregon affect local demand. Several new rules related to medical marijuana will become effective July 1.

The council unanimously approved McEnerny-Ogle’s motion to reword the zoning code to set a limit of six stores and strike the wording, “unless the Liquor Control Board permits additional businesses.”

To allow time for the proper public notice required by law, the council won’t vote on the new language of the zoning code until its Dec. 21 meeting, following a public hearing.

Two of the four people who spoke at Monday’s public hearing already have state licenses to operate in Woodland and Camas, both of which have banned recreational pot stores. The men, Jon Britt and Mark Elkins, wanted the Vancouver council to lift the limit on the number of pot shops so they could open businesses in town.

Jim Mullen, who co-owns the Herbery recreational pot store in Vancouver, advised the council not to lift the cap yet because the market is volatile. His two shops have seen a sharp revenue decline in the two months since Oregon began allowing medical dispensaries to sell to recreational customers, and further declines are imminent once Oregon begins allowing sales of additional pot products, Mullen said.

That argument didn’t impress Burkman, who said the government shouldn’t try to protect a business’ profits.

State rule change

On Sept. 23, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board temporarily lifted its limits on the number of retail pot licenses issued statewide, with a plan to set permanent caps in the coming months. The new emergency rules implement changes made to the law earlier this year that aim to align medical and recreational marijuana markets and requirements. The rules also give medical pot users an incentive to use the recreational pot shops.

On Oct. 12, the Liquor and Cannabis Board began taking new applications for recreational retail licenses. Applicants must obtain state licensing before applying locally.

In the weeks since the rule change, the city of Vancouver has received about 12 inquiries — from existing local retailers exploring the possibility of opening new stores, individuals licensed outside of Vancouver and people hoping to get into the pot business.

After taking testimony at its Nov. 10 public hearing, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended a limit of nine stores. The city of Vancouver has six retail stores sited in the west, central and east parts of town. The state had approved a total of 15 retail pot licenses for all of Clark County and its cities, but aside from Vancouver, Battle Ground is the only city that has a pot shop.

The Planning Commission recommended by a 5-2 vote that the city increase its number of recreational pot shops from six to nine for a variety of reasons, including that the geographic dispersion of the retailers is uneven, and adding more stores could alleviate the parking problems in Uptown Village due to the presence of Main Street Marijuana.

In addition, commissioners said they felt the number of retailers the state initially set was artificially low to allow a phased rollout of pot stores. Some commissioners said they wanted to let the free market decide how many pot retailers the community could sustain, but the general consensus was that a limit was needed.

The commissioners said they hadn’t heard of any negative consequences of the city’s retail pot shops and didn’t feel that allowing a few more would harm the community, according to meeting minutes.

Vancouver will receive $790,500 in retail pot excise taxes for the state’s 2016 fiscal year.