The Columbian / Associated Press

Pot shop opens in Hazel Dell in defiance of moratorium

Sticky's Pot Shop opened along Highway 99 in Hazel Dell late last month, defying Clark County code that prohibits recreational marijuana shops in unincorporated areas. Clark County code enforcement officials say they'll be issuing a warning to the store in the coming days. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

A newly opened marijuana shop in Hazel Dell has put its owner in a sticky situation.

Sticky’s Pot Shop opened its doors late last month at 9411 N.E. Highway 99, defying Clark County’s moratorium on recreational marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas.

“We have worked very hard and expended tremendous amounts of time and money to open our doors,” said shop owner John Larson, who lives in Yakima and responded to questions by email Thursday. “We are simply exercising our right as a lawfully licensed marijuana retailer in the state of Washington.”

But Sticky’s days are numbered. County code enforcement soon will issue a warning to Larson telling him to shut down the store and vacate within 10 days, said Paul Scarpelli, Clark County’s code enforcement manager. If he refuses, “we’re going to take matters into our own hands,” Scarpelli said.

It came as a surprise to Scarpelli that Larson was able to obtain a certificate of occupancy for the property in the first place. It appears, however, that the 68-year-old store owner applied for, and was granted, a certificate of occupancy under the name Emerald Enterprises Scarpelli said.

The application made no mention of marijuana, and said the store would sell “novelties, crafts, collectibles and general merchandise,” Scarpelli said. But soon a citizen notified the county that the store was selling marijuana in violation of county code.

“He knew what he was doing,” Scarpelli said of Larson. “He was not being honest.”

After only a few Facebook posts, the store opened on Dec. 18 with relatively little fanfare compared with the legal shops operating within Vancouver city limits. There are photos on the store’s Facebook page of marijuana for sale, and Larson had marijuana displayed for sale Thursday afternoon.

This is the only time someone has successfully managed to open a marijuana shop in an unincorporated area since the Clark County commissioners approved a moratorium on recreational marijuana businesses in 2014. Scarpelli says he’s now urging the county permitting staff to press entrepreneurs for more information about what types of businesses they’re opening, he said.

“We’re kind of still like we can’t believe this guy did it,” Scarpelli said.

Larson, however, denied that he misrepresented Sticky’s business plan to the county, saying he applied as a “retail business.”

“I have no desire whatsoever to antagonize the county,” Larson said. “I have respect for the rule of law.”

Sticky’s opening marks the latest in an ongoing saga between Larson and the county. In 2014, Larson sued Clark County in Cowlitz County Superior Court, claiming that the county’s moratorium on marijuana retailers violated Initiative 502, the voter-approved measure that legalized recreational marijuana production and sales in the state.

“It is time for the county to follow state law,” Larson said.

The judge in that case, however, concluded I-502 does not override local governments’ authority to ban marijuana retailers.

Three other superior court judges in the state have offered similar rulings in four other cases, and the Attorney General’s Office issued an official opinion in 2014 that local moratoriums are legal.

“As I have said from the beginning, the drafters of Initiative 502 could have required local jurisdictions to allow the sale of recreational marijuana,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a news release in 2014. “It could have been done in a single sentence, but it was not.”

Larson’s case is currently in appellate court, but Hilary Bricken, an attorney at Seattle-based Harris Moure and chair of the firm’s Canna Law Group, said it’s unlikely that Washington judges will ever rule against local moratoriums.

“You’re not going to have a leg to stand on in court,” Bricken said of those looking to challenge local moratoriums.