The Columbian / Associated Press

Yakima pot producers step past competition to stay in business

Jamie Muffett hopes to keep Sticky Budz, a marijuana producing and processing business he’s running, in operation — and he’s willing to fight to make sure it does.

His business, which employs 16 full-time workers and is located outside Zillah in unincorporated Yakima County, is licensed by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.

That, Muffett says, should provide county officials and residents assurance that the business is well supervised and in compliance with state laws.

“It’s so incredibly regulated by the LCB, I think that should give everyone peace of mind,” Muffett said at the business one recent morning.

Even so, there’s a threat to Muffett’s business and others like it in Yakima County.

Officials want to start enforcing the county’s 2014 ban on pot businesses in unincorporated areas of the county. Muffett’s dad, Mike Muffett, owns the company and is among more than 20 state-licensed pot businesses operating despite the ban.

Much is at stake for the pot businesses, with millions of dollars in investment and profit. For county officials, it’s the principle of upholding the ordinance. Despite civility on both sides, the issue could evolve into a lengthy and costly legal battle that could endure for years.

Muffett and the other businesses, mostly processors and producers, are mounting a unified effort to fight the ban should the county attempt to shut them down.

“If it comes down to that, then we’re prepared to fight the county,” said Jeffery McPhee, CEO of Tetra-Max Global, which provides consulting to marijuana businesses throughout Central Washington.

Twenty-three marijuana business owners, including Muffett, attended a meeting last week in an effort to unify, McPhee said.

“We would like to be united with the county as well,” Jamie Muffett said. “We’d like to all be moving in the same direction.”

Before launching any court battle, though, business owners want to start a dialogue with county commissioners in hopes of changing their stance. Next month, business owners plan to begin ongoing talks with commissioners, McPhee said.

Commissioner Mike Leita welcomes discussion, but says the group would have to seek a petition to change a county ordinance, a process that involves public hearings.

“I think they are entitled to go through that process, but it would be a community process,” Leita said.

Thus far, commissioners have stood by the ban, which they say is justified because county voters handily rejected the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012.

Marijuana businesses don’t buy that argument, McPhee said.

“There are plenty of people in Yakima County who didn’t vote for Jay Inslee, but he’s still our governor,” he said.

Many of the businesses were low-key operations solely catering to the medicinal market without any interference from the county. But now that state regulators have folded the medicinal market into the broader recreational market, there’s been much talk by county officials about how to approach enforcing the ban.

McPhee believes voters in the county would approve the measure repealing the ban now that medicinal marijuana has been absorbed into the recreational market.

“Everybody knows it would pass,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants to take access away from the terminally ill cancer patients in our county.”

The marijuana industry could quickly become a boon for the economy, McPhee said, providing more jobs and tax revenue.

He’s identified at least six potential retailers looking to come here if the ban were lifted, he said.

Many producers and processors from the west side also are interested in setting up shop here, McPhee said.

The labor force, farming infrastructure and the climate are good fits for marijuana operations, he said.

“It’s all right here. Every single aspect we need is right here in Yakima.