Clallam County officials, marijuana advocates still struggle with new pot law

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County officials who issue land-use permits for pot businesses and enforce the state of Washington's new marijuana law continue to struggle with the dictates of Initiative 502.

That's also true for people who want to grow, process and sell the drug, officials said Tuesday.

Clallam County law enforcement personnel and county Community Development Director Sheila Roark Miller discussed the status of the law and its impact on the North Olympic Peninsula at the Port Angeles Business Association's breakfast meeting Tuesday.

Applicants for pot permits still act as though the recreational use of marijuana was not legalized by voters in November when they come into the Department of Community Development for their paperwork, Roark Miller said.

They don't even like uttering the word “marijuana” aloud.

“Before they even say a word, they say 502,” Roark Miller told more than 30 breakfast meeting participants.

“They look over their shoulder to see who's standing around.

“They are not used to the whole bureaucracy.

“They are used to someone in uniform with a gun asking them what they are doing.”

Sheriff Bill Benedict said that unlike Colorado, which has a “top-down” licensing approach and is the only other state to legalize pot, Washington's law is more localized within a “broad framework” under which cities and counties must decide on permit requirements.

Medical marijuana

The state Legislature also failed to close what Benedict called “the medical marijuana loophole” under which he said there are likely more than 1,000 Clallam County residents with medical marijuana certificates.

“There is nothing that will stop them from having their own grows and continuing to have them,” Benedict said.

“It's going to make it a little bit of a sticky problem for enforcement.”

The Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team, which operates in Clallam and Jefferson counties, has not had a significant marijuana-grow arrest since 2009, OPNET Commander Ron Cameron told the group, adding that cases involving heroin and other drugs have taken priority.

Under the law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older.

I-502 “took something that was flat illegal and at least legalized a certain amount,” Cameron said.

But it remains illegal at the federal level.

“Now, if we arrest somebody with it, what do we do with it?” Cameron added.

“Then we have a problem with releasing it at the federal level.”

Federal regulations also make it difficult for marijuana entrepreneurs to deposit cash in banks, which could increase security issues at those marijuana businesses where large amounts of money are stored, Cameron said.

Benedict added that “a huge challenge” is determining impairment under which a motorist could be charged with driving under the influence of marijuana.

The degree of impairment would be determined by a blood draw, he added.

The county Planning Commission is developing land-use rules under which people can grow, process and sell pot in the unincorporated county.

Marijuana growing and processing would be permitted outright in the 15 zones that allow industrial uses.

Roark Miller said pot-business applicants also may not realize that although Initiative 502 was approved — 55 percent of voters were for it in Clallam County — applicants still have local laws to follow before they can grow, process and sell the drug.

Conditional-use permits

Last year, conditional-use permits were approved for construction of three marijuana greenhouses at two locations.

The permit, among the strictest land-use permits issued by the county, covers the degree of outdoor lighting, fencing and signage.

If the crop is grown outdoors, “you'll probably have more than just a camera going,” Roark Miller said.

Someone might be in a recreational vehicle to watch the property, and a dog might warn of intruders, she said.

“I'll bet there will be a shotgun or two or more,” Roark Miller added.

“Security will not be an issue.

“Then again, do you want this next door?

“I want to make sure we have a process and get them in front of a hearing examiner and look at it on a case-by-case basis until such time that the laws make it less restrictive or more for neighborhoods.”

The state Liquor Control Board, which issues licenses for growing, processing and selling marijuana, allotted six retail stores for unincorporated Clallam County and four in Jefferson County.

Initiative 502 is viewed by some as a way to generate tax revenue, “like the goose that laid the golden egg,” Benedict said.

But a 25 percent state excise tax is levied at each of three stages — growing, processing and retail — likely making it more expensive than illegal pot.

In addition, results of a state-sponsored study showed just 8 percent of current pot users would buy legal marijuana, Benedict said.

“That's still about 92 percent under the radar,” he added.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 01. 2014 7:24PM
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