Years After I-502, Legal Marijuana In Central Washington Is Far From Settled Law

Thirty states have legalized some form of medical marijuana. Nine of those states and Washington, D.C., allow recreational sale of the drug.CREDIT: TED S. WARREN
Thirty states have legalized some form of medical marijuana. Nine of those states and Washington, D.C., allow recreational sales. CREDIT: TED S. WARREN/AP

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Six years ago, Washington state said yes to legalizing marijuana with Initiative 502. But counties in Central Washington largely voted against it.

Now, in the Columbia Basin, communities are pushing back on recreational marijuana by leveraging county regulations – regulations like Benton County’s new “Sight and Smell Ordinance.”

What’s that mean? If you can smell or see marijuana grows from your home, you have the right to call the sheriff.

It’s a policy straight out of the debate on legal marijuana. Fifty-six percent of Benton County residents voted against I-502 in 2012. And now many are fighting to get it out of their backyards.

Jennifer Mons lives in Finley, along the Columbia River next to Kennewick. She says her drive home has changed since cannabis operations have popped up:

“It’s a drive I really used to enjoy,” Mons says. “Last fall, I was driving home. The ride was just horrible. It reeked of marijuana. I started actually getting headaches and sick to my stomach.”

Mons says the smell affects her and her family from late July, well into the fall when it’s being harvested. It doesn’t help that her family suffers from severe seasonal allergies. While some allergies can be tested and controlled with immunotherapy, that’s not possible with marijuana.

That’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it for testing, so there’s no way an allergist can incorporate it into an allergy shot to help people who suffer from reactions to the marijuana pollen.

CANNABIS IN THE COLUMBIA BASIN

Finley is an unincorporated part of Benton County. Because of that, marijuana growers, processors and retailers flocked to that part of the Tri-Cities. In the county there’s no shortage of marijuana, with over 50 producers, processors and retailers.

Data from the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board show over a hundred licensed cannabis businesses. Many are duel producers and processors so these estimates have been compared for accuracy with sources like 502 Data. Marijuana producers grow the plants while processors package it for retail.

The county’s Sight and Smell Ordinance means all 40 deputies from the Benton County Sheriff’s Department can follow up on complaints. A first-time infraction will cost $500 dollars. But it does come with a 10-day grace period for offenders to make changes.

Growers like Randy Williams believe the ordinance is just scapegoating weed.

“Just like smelling grapes, you smell them when you drive by when it’s harvest time,” Williams says. “Hops you smell them when you drive by, you go by the cattle yards. Those aren’t a very good smell. I don’t think people go there or drive out of their way to smell a cattle yard.”

Williams owns Fireweed Farms in Prosser and was one of the first legal cannabis farmers in the Yakima Valley. Williams is a Tier 3 producer and processor, and his operation is all outdoors. Tier 3 is the largest producer license with a marijuana canopy between 10 and 30 thousand square feet. nHe produces about 500 pounds of marijuana every year and sells to retailers in Yakima and Benton counties, but most of the product is sold in western Washington.

Nearby he has over a dozen neighbors. But Williams says he hasn’t had any complaints. One neighbor actually works for him.

“We know everybody for a long time, so we talk,” he says. “You don’t complain to somebody else, you complain to your neighbor if you have a problem with them. “You don’t go to the Liquor Control Board and say ‘Hey I don’t like the smell.’ They would let me know. The only thing here is people tell me they go out of their way to smell it in the fall.”

Bill Berkman, chairman of the Benton County Republicans, disagrees.

“And one could say, oh well if you’re going to be a dairy farmer or a chicken farmer, that’s the fragrance of nature,” Berkman says. “But here’s the deal, there are a lot of ordinances already on the books — where you can dairy farm, and how many head of cattle you can have in proportion to how many acres you have.”

Berkman thinks county commissioners made a move in the right direction. But in his ideal scenario, marijuana would be completely gone from this area.

“We’re against it because quite simply it has no place in this society,” he says.

Meanwhile, Benton County Democrats haven’t taken a stance on marijuana in the area. In an email, communication chair Jay Clough said they don’t see it as a partisan issue.

IN THE WEEDS

County policies exist to guide farmers and their crop production. But the language of those policies is changing.

Benton County Commissioners recently voted to amend the definition of agriculture earlier in May. Now the words agriculture and farming exclude marijuana. Zoning of rural lands has been changed to ban marijuana production. But current marijuana businesses are grandfathered in.

Nearby counties have reacted similarly by limiting cannabis operations.

Yakima County had a non-binding advisory vote banning new marijuana business in unincorporated parts of the county. Walla Walla passed a similar ordinance. Klickitat County passed a permanent ban blocking new businesses from entering and old ones from expanding.

In other Washington counties, retailers are allowed but producers or processors aren’t. In the six years after I-502 passed, Washington is still figuring it out. Cities and counties are experimenting with their own local policies while staying true to state law.

Meanwhile the state is trying to make sure the feds don’t crack down on them.

It’s a kaleidoscope of policies across the map.

For marijuana farmer Randy Williams, the shifting policies means his business is caught in the crossfire. Before becoming a cannabis farmer, Williams owned a carpet cleaning business for over 30 years. He’s thinking of going back to that more regularly.

“When I started the marijuana business so I slowed down the carpet business thinking ‘Oh this is get rich quick, never have to do carpets again.’ But when the marijuana slowed down, now I’m ramping up my carpet business again.”

An influx of growers, processors, and retailers means the market is saturated and marijuana prices are dropping. And what was once a bustling green wave of business, is now caught in the weeds of regulation.

Copyright 2018 Northwest Public Broadcasting

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