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May 23, 2013 at 12:42 PM

Seattle marijuana zoning just words on paper without enforcement

Seattle marijuana zones

The Seattle City Council’s proposed marijuana zoning rules would have been great a year ago. But as I was sitting in on a City Hall news conference yesterday, I wondered what difference it would really make.

A year ago, when the 2012 Legislature failed to pass medical marijuana regulations, cities were stuck cleaning up the mess of a vaguely-defined, unregulated but booming business in storefront marijuana dispensaries. Seattle had adopted the loosest of rules – essentially requiring marijuana businesses to operate like any other business. 

But even those haven’t been followed. The city itself identifies 24 of the 164 Seattle marijuana businesses as lacking business licenses. As of last year, just 50 marijuana businesses statewide paid sales taxes.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories of shoddy wiring in unlicensed commercial marijuana grows catching fire, in one case causing a transformer to blow. In my neighborhood of Wallingford, I watched an unlicensed dispensary, J&K Collective, move into the basement of a house across the street from a pre-school, smack in the middle of a single-family residential zone. My neighbor, mother of elementary-school-aged twins, complained to the city about customers smoking spliffs in the driveway. The city gave light nudges, and it took a full six months for them to voluntarily move, according to city documents.

After a year of glacial Seattle process, the City Council is now preparing to overlay zoning rules on top of an established industry, one moving at warp speed in preparation of the December launch of a recreational market. Does the city propose to bring existing marijuana businesses into compliance? Will unlicensed medical marijuana grows suddenly pop to the surface because of the city says they should?

Unless the rules are enforced, they will be words on paper. I’m skeptical they will be enforced, based on history and on the pot-loving politics of Seattle. What city department wants to be equated with the DEA?

I want the industry to thrive, and for Washington to be the world’s test case for a new way on drug policy. But spotty enforcement screws the entrepreneurs who are trying to do it right (and there are plenty, including Dockside Co-op’s Oscar Velasco-Schmitz, in video below), while rewarding the cowboys operating on an old underground mentality. And the feds have cracked down on Colorado’s tightly-regulated medical marijuana market far less than California’s wild-west market. Enforcement is no prophylactic against federal intervention, but it clearly makes a difference.

I hope I’m wrong, and that the large-scale grows necessary for Initiative 502 market will be rationally funneled into industrial zones. We’ll see.

Here’s City Council president Sally Clark on a marijuana industry panel.

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