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August 7, 2014 at 10:04 AM

Prosser may put pot businesses on back burner

By Ross Courtney / Yakima Herald-Republic

PROSSER — The city that became the Yakima Valley’s first home to a pot shop has now decided to temporarily put the brakes on any more marijuana.

At a special meeting Tuesday night, the Prosser City Council agreed to a moratorium on any additional marijuana businesses. The council did not take formal action but asked attorneys to prepare an ordinance for them to approve on Monday.

The move would, temporarily, make Prosser one of the most pot restrictive in the Yakima Valley — a turnabout from being the Valley’s first home to a legal marijuana retail shop. Altitude opened to long lines on July 8, the day after the state issued the first recreational licenses under Initiative 502. The moratorium would not affect the current shop.

The city already has a moratorium on medical cannabis community gardens and dispensaries that expires in September and may be extended, Mayor Paul Warden said.

Officials said the new moratorium is intended only to give staff more time to draft land-use ordinances to regulate pot businesses. They insist it is not a reaction to some vocal members of the community who want a permanent ban.

“It didn’t affect me,” said Councilman Morgan Everett, referring to public pressure. Everett says he opposes a ban.

Councilman Scott Hamilton, who supports a ban, also said his opinion wasn’t swayed.

Both support the moratorium.

Protesters have picketed City Hall and the retail store, while the majority of those who comment at city public hearings speak against marijuana. In November 2012, when state voters passed I-502, 56 percent of Prosser voters opposed it. Ray Tolcacher, superintendent of the Prosser School District, opposes marijuana in the city.

Temporary moratoriums are designed to give city officials time to develop their own permanent laws. Sunnyside currently has a yearlong moratorium on recreational marijuana that officials plan to extend for another six months on Monday.

In Prosser, city officials are mulling a permanent ordinance that would add more restrictions to marijuana operations than what are required by the Liquor Control Board, charged with implementing I-502.

For example, city staff are considering requiring producers to grow pot plants indoors only, for added security. The state rules mandate fences. Planners also have suggested restricting business hours.

Meanwhile, some city officials want to give lawsuits in other cities a chance to work their way through courts. Pot retailers have sued a few cities that imposed bans.

Hamilton, a former Prosser police chief, is one of the strongest opponents of marijuana on the council.

The City Council, he said, should have enacted the moratorium before the store opened and discussed a ban previously.

“We have now had those discussions, but it was too late,” he said.

The council discussed marijuana several times between November and May but never took a vote. Hamilton missed a few meetings earlier this year due to medical problems but attended at least some when marijuana was discussed.

Most members did not want to risk lawsuits, even if they personally oppose marijuana.

“I never considered a ban,” Everett said.

Meanwhile, city officials for months have been considering an effective ban on medical cannabis facilities by requiring all dispensaries and community gardens to have a state license, which doesn’t exist. City staff and some pro marijuana attorneys have suggested that the state’s medical cannabis laws are unclear and lack teeth, which might leave the city exposed to legal challenges.

Federal laws still forbid all forms of marijuana.

The current retail shop, Altitude, has seen a steady stream of customers since opening, said Manel Valenzuela, a spokesman for the store.

He declined to share any sales or tax figures but said the shop is open four hours a day, plus eight hours on Saturday.

The owners, chiropractors Tim Thompson and Ken Delp, had planned to keep longer hours, but the state’s supply lags behind demand and they want to see what the city requires.

“We want to make sure the city’s happy,” Valenzuela said.

Comments | More in News | Topics: altitude, pot, Prosser

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