Despite the fact that implementation of Initiative 502 (I-502), a measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana that was approved by Washington voters in 2012, is in full swing, and other states such as Florida and New York are loosening their laws on the use of medical marijuana, there is growing resistance to legal marijuana as local municipalities across the country seek to ban legal sales of the controlled substance.
According to a New York Times article this week:
In Washington, the Yakima County Commission has already said that it plans to ban marijuana businesses in the unincorporated areas outside Yakima city. Clark County, Washington, is considering a ban on recreational sales that would affect the huge marijuana market in Portland, Ore., just across the Columbia River. And the state’s second most populous county, Pierce, just south of Seattle, said last month it would bar recreational businesses from opening.
In fact, the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, a pro-legalization research group in Seattle, reported this month that 36 cities in Washington covering more than 1.5 million people have passed local moratoriums putting a hold on the acceptance of marijuana licenses. Three cities have banned marijuana businesses entirely until use of the drug is approved federally.
Opposition to legalized marijuana has been seen outside of Washington State as well. In California, for instance, Fresno County recently became the first county in the state to ban all marijuana cultivation. In addition, several local governments throughout Colorado have taken steps to prohibit marijuana businesses in their respective cities.
These local efforts appear to be spurred by “the opening, or imminent opening, of retail marijuana stores [in Washington] and in Colorado,” as the New York Times reports, as well as anxiety over how the production and sale of marijuana may impact neighborhoods and communities. In Washington, the Liquor Control Board opened the application process in late November for individuals and businesses to apply for marijuana licenses within a 30-day window. Although there is no set timeline for issuing these licenses to qualified applicants, it is expected that the Washington recreational marijuana industry will open for business beginning in spring 2014. In Colorado, 37 new dispensaries opened their doors on January 1, 2014 and commenced legal sales of marijuana for recreational use in the state.
In addition to the looming legal marijuana business in Washington and Colorado, and the fear expressed by some residents over the effect marijuana sales may have on communities and youth, another factor fueling the opposition of local municipalities to marijuana businesses setting up shop in their towns is simply their legal right to issue local bans against legal marijuana sellers and growers. A January 16, 2014 legal opinion issued by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson appears to support this position. According to the nonbinding opinion, under Washington law, local governments have broad authority to regulate within their jurisdictions, and nothing in I-502 limits that authority with respect to licensed marijuana businesses. In fact, in Washington, there is a strong presumption against finding that state law preempts local ordinances.
Ferguson further explains that “[a]lthough Initiative 502 (I-502) establishes a licensing and regulatory system for marijuana producers, processors, and retailers in Washington State, it includes no clear indication that it was intended to preempt local authority to regulate such businesses.” Ferguson concluded that I-502 left in place the normal powers of local governments to regulate within their jurisdictions. As a result, many local governments have seen this opinion as a green light to move forward with local ordinances banning marijuana production and sale.
The fight over legalized marijuana is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. However, the debate involves more than tax revenues and community values. As New York Times reporter Kirk Johnson puts it, “the fight also signals a larger battle over the future of legal marijuana: whether it will be a national industry providing near-universal access, or a patchwork system with isolated islands of mainly urban sales.” Only time will tell.