In some cities in Washington, we’re already seeing local regulatory reactions to the passage of I-502. Whether positive or negative, with the exceptions of Cheney and Medical Lake, to the best of our knowledge and research, no other Washington cities have yet outright banned I-502 retail, processing, or production facilities. Contrasted with the municipal regulatory history of medical cannabis, this is somewhat of a surprise even if no licenses have been issued yet.
In May 2011, Washington state experienced a slew of moratoria (bans) on medical cannabis collective gardens and storefronts. City councils across the state deferred to overly-conservative city attorneys who were more than happy to unlawfully defer to the Federal Controlled Substances Act when signing off on these bans. State and Federal law, as well as case law, are clear that these city attorneys and administrators do not have the authority to enforce Federal law. Nonetheless, almost every moratorium on MMJ stipulated that the ban was justified on the basis of Federal law.
Supportive of cities’ illogical positions on MMJ is the fact that Washington’s medical cannabis laws are extremely vague and subject to multiple interpretations depending on the interpreter. In places like Bellingham and Lacey, their city attorneys saw collective gardens as no more than a certain number of cannabis plants with no opportunity for commercialization, where every patient (even terminal ones!) was expected to physically go to the physical grow to access their medicine. Contrast that with Seattle and Olympia, wherein Seattle actually created a booming cannabis economy and Olympia failed to regulate one way or the other thereby allowing people to commercialize their medical cannabis amidst the very gray MMJ laws.
There has been little to no uniformity regarding MMJ local legislation, enforcement, or laws because Washington state’s medical cannabis laws fell victim to an aggressive (and ignorant) line item veto by outgoing Governor Christine Gregoire. As a result, it was every city for itself when it came to the treatment of medical cannabis. And it has remained that way since May 2011. While various MMJ stakeholders have sued cities for their unconstitutional medical cannabis bans, it remains somewhat unclear (and, so far, undecided by any court) whether or not medical cannabis patients can specifically run MMJ storefronts under Washington state laws.
While MMJ wages its own battles against arbitrary bans, I-502 will certainly face a different municipal fate for a couple of reasons:
1. The initiative is written much more clearly than current MMJ laws, making compliance and enforcement efforts easier on licensees and local administrators;
2. I-502 cannot be invaded and changed by the state legislature until two years have passed and a super majority convenes to change it; and
3. I-502 doesn’t give as much regulatory authority to the cities as current MMJ laws; current MMJ laws allow cities to regulate medical cannabis for local business licensing, zoning, and health and safety requirements. As a result, a lot of cities chose to ban MMJ on the basis of health and safety concerns (combined with Federal law restrictions) and won’t even entertain giving these MMJ entities business licenses. On the other hand, I-502 only allows cities to object to prospective licensees on a case-by-case basis “for cause,” and the Liquor Control Board (LCB) has the authority to totally ignore those objections anyway. I-502, Section 6 (7)(b). I-502 really doesn’t allow the cities to do much else.
So, what exactly are we seeing as cities rev up for I-502? A mixed bag, that’s what. While Seattle prepares to zone its districts for medical cannabis use, we have no idea yet whether these zoning rules will also apply to I-502 facilities. Compare that with the City of Everett who recently passed a pretty aggressive nuisance ordinance, declaring that cannabis use, itself, is a nuisance. Notably, Everett’s nuisance ordinance will be in effect for 18 months with the city remaining mum on how it will handle I-502. Tacoma also recently passed a nuisance ordinance aimed at MMJ storefronts and has not commented on it how it will treat I-502 either.
Still, some cities, like Spokane, have already begun to undertake a conversation about I-502. Most worrisome though for the MMJ community is another kind of conversation about cannabis that’s taking place in Monroe, Washington. Specifically, Monroe seeks to ban medical cannabis collective gardens and storefronts from its neighborhoods and streets while also planning to allow for I-502 facilities when licenses begin to issue. In our opinion, conversations like those taking place in Monroe come dangerously close to setting the stage for cultural warfare between medicinal and recreational cannabis businesses. If MMJ regulations like those proposed in Monroe take effect, or if the LCB so mandates, the current medical cannabis industry may find itself having to choose between I-502 and MMJ, a choice that will change the face of the industry as we know it, as people will inevitably have to choose between profits and patients.