Yakima County prepares to decide whether to ban marijuana businesses, and faces an almost certain legal challenge if it does.

Share story

Yakima County authorities are inching toward a decision on whether to enforce a ban on marijuana businesses, but they’re likely to face a legal battle if they try to carry out the ban.

At least 20 recreational-marijuana businesses, largely growers and producers who package pot and make TCH-infused edibles, are now operating in unincorporated areas of the county, where a zoning ordinance prohibiting such operations was approved in 2014.

Anticipating possible enforcement, a local growers association has formed, hired an attorney and is suggesting either a public hearing or holding an election to decide whether the ban should remain.

“We’ll be running a very rigorous public campaign,” said Jeffery McPhee, CEO of Tetra-Max Global, which provides consulting to marijuana businesses across the region. “We expect good things to come of it. We are very confident in our legal rights as business owners.”

If that fails, the Marijuana Producers and Processors Association is prepared to challenge the county in court, McPhee said.

“We are well-organized, well-attended and very eager to take on the county in this regard,” he said. “We think they are dead wrong.”

County commissioners aren’t quick to say if they plan to shut anyone down, only that the matter will be addressed.

“I would say my guess is that it will be something the board of commissioners will have to take action on in 2017, and it remains to be seen what action would be prudent,” Commissioner Mike Leita said.

Before agreeing to a public hearing or placing the matter before voters, Leita wants to allow newly elected Commissioner Ron Anderson to settle into office so he also can weigh in on the decision.

Though commissioners may consider the requests, the county isn’t obligated to do so, Leita said.

Furthermore, Leita said he hasn’t gotten a straight answer from the group as to whether they would cease operations if voters decided to retain the ban.

“If they say they are not going to abide by a vote if it’s against them, then why have the advisory vote?” he said. “We’re being very methodical in our approach in this.”

McPhee would only say it depends on how fair and objective a public hearing or vote is carried out.

If the county does take action, enforcement could be swift, said Public Services Director Vern Redifer.

First, business owners would be given a notice to respond, typically within 30 days. If not, then the matter could be taken to Yakima County Superior Court, where county officials would seek an order shutting the business down.

Enforcing the ban now falls to two code-enforcement officers who are already stretched thin trying to address a huge backlog of cases, about 1,300 in all, ranging from junked cars to illegally constructed buildings.

But under recent changes, enforcement of such violations have been broken into two distinct categories, one focusing on building violations and the other on zoning violations, Redifer said.

While the two enforcement officers will focus on building-code violations, a worker in the planning department will be designated to handle zoning and other planning-type violations, he said.

“Marijuana operations could be the bulk of those planning-type cases,” Redifer said.

Seattle attorney Dan Bariault, who represents the association, says action by the county to shut down any of the businesses would be met with a lawsuit.

“It would end up being a legal battle,” he said. “We’re hoping that by honest and open dialogue we can convince the county that this would be a huge benefit to the county. We’re hoping that the county will realize what the city of Yakima realized.”

Earlier this year, the city nixed its ban on marijuana businesses.

Commissioners justify the ban based on the way voters in Yakima County rejected Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana. While receiving statewide approval in 2012, the initiative was rejected by Yakima County voters by 57.8 percent.

“This ordinance didn’t come into place through a whimsical process,” Leita said of the ban. “We work for the community as a whole, not special-interest groups.”

McPhee, however, believes voters here would allow such operations a second time around.

Many of the affected businesses previously operated in a low-key manner, solely providing medicinal marijuana without any interference from the county.

Their presence came into sharp focus last summer, when the state Liquor and Cannabis Board folded medicinal marijuana operations into the broader recreational market.

That change alone, McPhee said, would lead to a different outcome in an election.

“It’s an easy win for us, in my opinion,” he said.