WENATCHEE — The city of Wenatchee will probably hold off making any decisions about whether to allow marijuana-related businesses, at least for now.
But if the City Council waits too long, taking no action will prohibit any such businesses from opening in the city. That’s because the city’s laws prohibit businesses from breaking federal law, which still criminalizes pot.
The city’s legal counsel and staff gave the City Council on Thursday the latest overview on how still-developing state rules that would legalize the production and sale of pot could impact the city.
Several council members expressed concern over violating federal law if they allowed such businesses in the city.
“Quite frankly, I don’t want to go against federal law,” Councilwoman Linda Herald said.
But Councilman Mark Kulaas argued that by allowing pot businesses, “the city would be respecting the wishes of its voters.”
Assistant City Attorney Danielle Marchant pointed out that just over 51 percent of Chelan County voters supported the state initiative that legalizes marijuana.
Kulaas added that city voters supported the initiative at a slighter higher percentage — just over 52 percent — than the county.
Since the state is still developing rules for producing and selling marijuana, it is currently legal to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational purposes, but it is not yet legal to grow, package or sell it.
Marchant said the state Liquor Control Board intends to approve a new plan in mid October and issue business licenses from Nov. 18 to Dec. 18.
She said the City Council needs to decide before then whether to allow such businesses and, if so, whether to impose additional regulations.
Marchant said that the proposed state rules would require marijuana retailers to operate stand-alone businesses; their products cannot be visible to the general public; and they can’t offer free samples.
“We won’t have these things being sold at Target,” she said.
Pot businesses also would not be allowed to operate out of private residences.
While there is no limit to the number of pot growers and processors allowed in the state, there will be limits on the numbers of retailers, Marchant said. The numbers will be determined by a yet-to-be-developed formula that allows the most licenses to be granted in the largest cities within each county.
“So most likely they will be centered in Wenatchee,” she added.
Marchant said the council has three primary options for dealing with the new law, including:
Impose a short-term moratorium, similar to what East Wenatchee and about 50 other cities have done, to allow more time to study the issue.
Start developing new regulations, such as zoning, taxes, and nuisance laws, to guide the opening of new marijuana businesses.
Do nothing, which would equate to a ban on businesses.
The city currently has no land-use and zoning rule that pertain to marijuana businesses. But the proposed state rules do prohibit them from opening within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, recreation centers, child-care centers, public parks, public transit centers, libraries, and game arcades.
Marchant said some cities are using nuisance laws to regulate marijuana through new ordinances relating to odor.
Wenatchee Police Capt. Doug Jones said the agency has received more complaints from neighbors complaining of pot smell since it became legal. He didn’t say how many, though.
Complicating all of it, Marchant added, is the federal law prohibiting the production, distribution and use of marijuana altogether.
The biggest concern expressed by council members on Thursday was over the federal law.
Kulaas suggested that maybe the city could just remove the requirement in its laws that businesses must be in compliance with federal law.
But Councilman Tony Veeder argued that just removing the word does not erase the city’s liability.
Marchant said some cities have added an indemnification clause to its business licenses in the hopes of protecting employees from being prosecuted by the federal government for aiding and abetting a crime.
She also added that federal agencies have not gone after government employees in states that have allowed the use of medical marijuana, including Washington, Oregon and California.
Veeder said he wasn’t in favor of a moratorium on pot businesses, but he suggested keeping the business rules as they are, which would ban the businesses outright.
To that, Kulaas asked council members what they should tell voters who were in favor of the law.
“Tell 52 percent of voters to take it to the federal government,” Councilman Keith Huffaker said.
Councilman Jim Bailey said the city could lose considerable government grant funding by going against federal law on the pot issue.
Kulaas suggested that the council wait awhile and see if the final state regulations clear up any of their concerns, or if the federal government takes a position on the state legalization issue.
“We could be doing a lot of this hand-wringing for not,” he said.