WENATCHEE — City leaders are inching toward allowing marijuana retail sales in Wenatchee.
Mayor Frank Kuntz put the matter before the City Council on Thursday after he met earlier with an organization that would like to open a marijuana store in the city.
“We have some folks in our community who want to start the process,” he said. “They’re getting ready to spend a bunch of money under the assumption that this city … is going to allow the use.”
Two members of the group — Cory Wendt and Mark McCants — attended Thursday’s council workshop.
Kuntz said that they have a lot of work to do to get their business plan in place before the state Liquor Control Board begins accepting applications for marijuana businesses in November. The city needs to decide whether and how it will allow such businesses before then, the mayor said.
To protect city employees from violating federal laws that prohibit the production and sale of the drug, the city will look at exempting pot businesses from having to get a local business license.
“It’s putting our toe in the water without getting scalded,” Councilman Mark Kulaas said.
The state has said three marijuana retail businesses could operate in Wenatchee under a plan that distributes such licenses among all counties based on population.
Last month, several council members appeared to be in favor of leaving in place a city law that would essentially prohibit any marijuana businesses from opening here.
The law requires all businesses that need a city license to comply with state and federal laws. Marijuana businesses would be in violation of federal law.
City Attorney Steve Smith recommended that the city exempt marijuana businesses from the requirement of getting a local business license. That would get around the city rule that doesn’t allow city-licensed businesses to violate federal law.
Steve King, the city’s director of community and economic development, said he supports the idea of exempting marijuana from business licenses.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for staff to be forced into violating federal law,” he said.
Some council members expressed concern about finalizing their own rules when the state still hasn’t adopted its rules.
“Do we have the cart before the horse?” Councilwoman Karen Rutherford asked.
But Kuntz urged councilmembers to take some action.
“At some point we owe it to the folks … to give them some guidance,” he said.
He added, “Do we direct our staff to do that? Or do you want to continue to sit and wait it out?”
Councilwoman Linda Herald said she was concerned about exempting marijuana businesses for city licenses when other businesses, such as taverns, need them.
But Kuntz pointed out that other businesses in the city don’t violate federal law.
Councilman Keith Huffaker said he didn’t think the city should move forward until the state finalized its rules.
“Who cares?” Kuntz asked. “So what if their regulation is one you don’t like. State law is state law.”
The council took no action, but will discuss the marijuana issue at a workshop next month. In the meantime, they directed city staff to work on possible changes to the current laws that would allow the businesses.
After the discussion, McCants, owner of Partnership Painting, said, “I think they did the right thing today, to follow the wishes of the voters.”
McCants and Wendt said they are part of a partnership of three local families who want to open retail marijuana stores in Wenatchee, Moses Lake and Okanogan County. He said they plan to submit applications to the state in November for three licenses.
He said they decided not to apply in East Wenatchee because the East Wenatchee City Council imposed a six-month moratorium on marijuana production, processing and retail sales.
They said their biggest concern now is that the Wenatchee City Council won’t take action in time for them to submit their application to the state.
Wendt said they are still looking for space to rent and would like to have 1,200 square feet for the store. He said he’s looked at 20 retail spaces so far, and 19 of them couldn’t be used because they were too close to a school, park or daycare facility.
He said once they find a space, it will have to be modified to meet state requirements for security and privacy.
“There are tons of regulations we have to comply with,” he said, adding that they expect to spend at least $25,000 per retail location before they even apply for a license.
McCants said the family partnership is looking at the stores as a business venture, and added that the three families currently operate a total of six businesses.
“We’re not just a bunch of hippies,” he said, adding that he was a member of a local Rotary club. “We’ve got to get past the bad stigma” of selling marijuana.