Peninsula utilities wait for decision on electricity for marijuana-growing operations

By Charlie Bermant and Leah Leach
Peninsula Daily News

North Olympic Peninsula public utilities are awaiting a decision by the Bonneville Power Administration concerning use of federal electric power for businesses growing marijuana.

“BPA hasn’t told us whether its power can be used for marijuana grow operations,” said Phil Lusk, Port Angeles deputy director of the city’s power and telecommunications system.

A BPA spokesman said only that the agency’s director is considering how to handle the discrepancy between state and federal law and would not say what decision is under consideration.

“We are exploring the issues related to supplying power and other services to customers serving marijuana grow operations,” said Mike Hansen, speaking from Portland, Ore.

“It’s too early to discuss potential policy implications.”

BPA provides about one-third of the electrical power in the Northwest. Most of its customers are public utility districts.

On the Peninsula, Clallam and Jefferson public utility districts and the city of Port Angeles buy BPA power.

Since the nonprofit BPA is a federal agency, “BPA and its employees cannot knowingly violate federal law,” Hansen said.

“The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance and the federal law remains unchanged,” he added.

“We’re beginning to look at what the potential impacts may be.”

There is no date for the administrator’s decision, he said.

In the meantime, public utilities are investigating.

Last week, the Jefferson County Public Utility District commissioners considered a possible preemptive action on a policy, but decided against it, saying they would take a “wait and see” position until there is a ruling.

“When we sell power, we don’t ask the customer what they are going to use it for,” PUD manager Jim Parker said prior to the Tuesday meeting.

“We aren’t into enforcing land use or drug regulations. We will sell you the power until we are told we cannot.”

Said Commissioner Wayne King at the Jefferson County PUD meeting: “Bonneville is thinking about limiting the power to be sold to marijuana groups but that doesn’t mean they are going to do it.

“We are in the power business, and we don’t do the enforcement. If Bonneville says we can’t do it, you’ll see us pass a resolution.

“But marijuana is here to stay,” King added.

“You have to realize that this isn’t just a couple of old hippies in the 1960s growing pot.

“This is a big money deal.”

Clallam County PUD, also a BPA customer, is studying the issue at a staff level, according to spokesman Mike Howe.

“Commissioners will be looking at something in the near future,” he said, adding a plan could go before them in August or September.

“We have no deadline,” Howe said. “We want to make sure it is done well.”

Port Angeles also is waiting for a decision.

“If they rule it’s illegal, we will need to follow their direction,” Lusk said.

Washington voters in November 2012 approved I-502, which allows the recreational use of marijuana in the state.

In a June 4 letter to the Benton Rural Electric Association in Mill Creek, which is 20 miles from downtown Seattle, BPA counsel Mary Jensen said that federal power cannot be used for any illegal activity or purpose, but there is no simple answer given the contradictory regulations regarding the legality of marijuana.

“We are trying to reconcile the difference between a state law and a federal law as quickly as possible,” Hansen said.

“When we make a policy decision on this, we will let all our customers in the region know.”

Hansen said there is no timetable for the decision and no immediate action planned.

In May, the U.S. Interior Department announced that marijuana growers cannot use federal irrigation water to cultivate cannabis.

“We believe BPA will serve us power to serve our customers,” Howe said.

“We’re really just now diving into this. We want to make sure we are legally protected if the administration said we’re not.”

If BPA decides its electrical power cannot be used for marijuana grows, then public utilities could serve such businesses if they provide power purchased from some other source.

Jefferson County PUD officials said that would require a separate billing structure.

Port Angeles’ Lusk said it wouldn’t have to be that complicated.

“We could determine the percentage of our customers who are involved in grow operations, like 5 percent, and purchase that percentage from another source,” Lusk said.

Supplying power to marijuana grow operations is nothing new, Leo Boyd told Jefferson PUD commissioners last week, since “people have been growing this stuff around here for years.”

The rules change, however, with disclosure.

“We don’t know for sure that people are growing things or doing things illegally now,” Howe said.

“But if we know what the business is, we would knowingly be supplying power and taking money from something that is illegal at the federal level.”

Sharon Hall of Chimacum told Jefferson County PUD commissioners that the district should proceed “very carefully” in their sales to marijuana grow operations.

“New businesses fail,” Hall said. “Maybe there should be a bond that these people pay so we don’t get stuck with the bill.”

Hall, who said she was speaking on her own behalf, is a member of the Residents for Responsible Regulation which has lobbied Jefferson County government to impose stricter permitting for grow operations.

Commissioner Barney Burke said that without BPA action, a grow operation would be treated like any other customer.

“We don’t look at people’s business plans,” he said.

“When they sign up for service, we check their credit.

“If they don’t pay, we shut their power off.”

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Managing Editor/News Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3531 or at leah.leach@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 06. 2014 6:57PM
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