The Columbian / Associated Press

Washougal city councilors divided on marijuana

Recreational marijuana is off to a strong start financially in Washington, though it may be early yet to gauge some of its long-term effects. (OPB files)

Washougal’s ban on producing, processing and the retail sale of marijuana got a bit stickier at a recent city council meeting, as the council took no action and had to set a special meeting for tonight to figure out the future of marijuana in the city.

Washougal’s ban is set to expire Thursday, and at the council’s Aug. 22 meeting, the councilors hosted a public hearing and were set to discuss extending the ban permanently — which really means until a future city council overrules it. Councilor Brent Boger put an amendment on the ordinance to extend the ban until Jan. 31, 2018, and put the ban up for a public advisory vote sometime in 2017.

Boger said he couldn’t support the original ordinance for a few reasons, and regulating marijuana in the city might make more sense than outright banning it.

“We may think we’re doing the right thing for our children and for public safety, but we don’t really know,” he said.

Boger and fellow councilors Joyce Lindsay and Paul Greenlee voted in favor of the amendment, while Dave Shoemaker and Dan Coursey voted against it. Councilors Michelle Wagner and Jennifer McDaniel were not at the meeting, so the amendment passed 3-2. The vote on the amended ordinance went 3-2 in favor, with the councilors all voting the same way. However, that vote failed because to pass an ordinance in Washougal, a vote needs a majority of the full council opposed to just the councilors at the meeting, which would be four votes, City Administrator David Scott said.

At a stalemate, the council didn’t take action at the meeting and set up a special meeting for 7 tonight at City Hall, 1701 C St., Washougal.

Since the amendment failed, the base ordinance of a permanent ban will be back in play, as will the amended version. The city council will discuss several different options for the future of marijuana in Washougal, as well as possibly putting it back up for an advisory vote sometime in 2017.

“There is nothing active on the table,” Scott said. “Everything is rebooted.”

The council does have to take some sort of action tonight, or else the ban will expire Thursday, at which time business owners can start the process of opening up shop in town. If an owner gets far enough into the process to get vested, there’s nothing the council can do even if another ban is put into place afterwards. The business will be legally allowed to operate.

If the council wants to vote for an emergency ordinance, which would go into effect immediately, the ordinance needs five votes to pass. Scott said McDaniel is expected to be at the meeting, but Wagner won’t be. He said councilors are allowed to participate remotely using a phone or video messaging, but he’s not sure if Wagner will be able to do that yet.

The only item on the agenda is the marijuana issue. While the public hearing is over, Scott said people can still speak during the meeting’s public comment portion. Since it’s a special meeting, public comments will be limited to only the issue on the agenda.

The public has had plenty of opportunities to comment on the marijuana issue already, both at the public hearing and before it via email. Scott said the council received more response than it normally does on other issues, but that’s still a relatively small sample size when compared with the overall population of the city.

That’s why Boger wants to put the marijuana ban up for a public vote. He thinks public feelings toward pot have changed a lot since 2012, when city residents narrowly voted against Initiative 502 to legalize possession and use of marijuana. The initiative passed in the state, so it is legal to use and have marijuana in Washougal. The ban only affects the production, processing and retail sale of it.

At the public hearing, about 25 people spoke, which was one of the biggest turnouts for a public hearing in a while, according to Scott. While plenty of speakers wanted to extend the ban, a lot of other residents wanted it legalized in some way.

Richard Renton, a Washougal resident and nutritional chemist for the last 30 years, tried to combat some prior speakers who discussed the potential dangers of marijuana, such as getting addicted to it.

“Is marijuana addictive?” he said. “According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, only 9 percent of people show any sign of actual addiction.”

He also said alcohol is more addictive, and the city has plenty of places to buy that.

Washougal School District Superintendent Mike Stromme said he’s worked with thousands of students as an educator for 28 years and has seen firsthand the issues that come with substance abuse. He said the city, school district and local organizations have worked together to teach kids about the dangers of drug abuse.

“Passing an ordinance that allows the production, processing and sale of marijuana appears to sanction permissibility,” he said.

A lot of speakers who wanted to extend the ban talked about protecting the youth of Washougal. Others said that lifting the ban could help keep marijuana out of the hands of young people.

“When I was a kid, it was a lot easier to get an eighth of pot than it was to get booze,” said Mark Elkins, who won the state’s lottery to open a retail marijuana store in Camas, only for the city to vote for a similar ban to Washougal’s. “Why? Because booze is regulated. You should regulate this.”