Questions linger about marijuana legalization

The recently approved Initiative 502 did not clarify the state and federal conflict over marijuana for cities like Maple Valley and Covington.

The recently approved Initiative 502 did not clarify the state and federal conflict over marijuana for cities like Maple Valley and Covington.

Instead, the passage of I-502 by the voters in November simply added recreational marijuana to medical marijuana as one more state law that contradicts the Controlled Substance Act.

“Initiative 502 didn’t change the existing medical marijuana statue so we still have to address the issue of collective gardens,” said Covington City Manager Derek Matheson. “But at the same time we’ll probably address the issue of retail marijuana stores and where those could be located within the city limits.”

The difference, however, is that recreational marijuana will be handled entirely through the state’s Liquor Control Board, which Maple Valley City Manager David Johnston said shifts the burden onto the state, rather than on cities.

“I think for most cities, the initiative pretty much is a state issue now, whereas when we had to fight this battle earlier in the year because of last year’s actions, it was resting all on the city’s shoulders,” Johnston said. “Now the state and federal government have to get together and make it work or the federal government will have to take its actions against the state on preemption issues. But what we’re hearing in the press is the Department of Justice are talking to the states to get a feel about this issue. Maybe, hopefully, next year it will be clearer.”

For Covington, which extended its moratorium on collective gardens, the initiative didn’t settle any conflict between the state and federal law, which  means the council might vote to extend it once again, Matheson said.

“It’s generated more questions, not answers to questions. On top of how to deal with medical marijuana we have to create a whole new regulatory system for recreational marijuana,” he said. “It’s a rapidly evolving area of law and it’s going to take time for the legislature and the court system to refine. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve chosen to continue our moratorium in six month periods because there’s no point in regulating a rapidly changing industry, now two industries.”

During the initial controversy over medical marijuana, Maple Valley and Covington took separate routes on how to address it. Although they both passed moratoriums on collective gardens and dispensaries in the spring, Maple Valley eventually passed an outright ban in the summer after a medical marijuana management company opened in April. A King County Superior Court judge upheld a city’s authority to ban medical marijuana collective gardens in October. In Black Diamond, where a medical marijuana management company called LadyBuds Inc. opened in September, the council has been silent on the issue and instead relied on its business license to regulate medical marijuana.

For the time being, the cities will wait until the Liquor Control Board creates regulations concerning retail stores. Under the initiative, the board has until Dec. 1, 2013 to establish guidelines and regulations.

According to a letter sent to Maple Valley from the Association of Washington Cities, growing marijuana, unless in a collective garden, remains illegal until the Liquor Control Board establishes a process for licensing and regulation. The board will take public comment until Feb. 10 about rules and restrictions. Only state-licensed production, processing and sale of marijuana will be allowed under the initiative.

Johnston stated that the question then will be a matter of where and if to zone for retail stores within the city.

“We’ll have to establish a use, like we have liquor stores as a use within a zoning code,” he said. “We’ll have to establish some marijuana stores. We’ll get that clear once the board does its work.”

At the same time, Matheson said that while Washington residents 21 and over are allowed to smoke marijuana, city employees will not.

“Even though marijuana is legal at the state level it remains illegal at the federal level and we’re an employer that receives federal funds,” he said. “We’ve informed them that there will be no changes to our employee handbook.”

Johnston said that it will really come down to how the federal government ultimately responds to the initiative as the state attempts to implement it.

“We’re all waiting for some direction,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

A statement from the Justice Department earlier this month stated officials are examining the legalization initiatives, but claim final authority as to whether or not marijuana is legal.

“The Department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,” it reads. “In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance….Members of the public are also advised to remember that it remains against federal law to bring any amount of marijuana onto federal property, including all federal buildings, national parks and forests, military installations, and courthouses.”