Seattle could see a significant increase in the number of legal pot shops as Mayor Ed Murray aims to loosen buffer zones now required between pot stores and parks, libraries and other venues frequented by youth.
Seattle could see a significant increase, perhaps a tripling, in the number of retail-pot stores in city limits under a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray.
The mayor wants to loosen buffer zones that now require legal pot businesses to be 1,000 feet from child-care centers, libraries, recreation facilities, public parks and transit centers. Murray would decrease the required distance to 500 feet, roughly a city block or two.
But he would keep the 1,000-foot distance between pot businesses and elementary and secondary schools and public playgrounds. He would also create a new buffer of 500 feet between legal pot stores.
Murray’s plan is aimed at bringing into the legal market the long-standing medical-marijuana dispensaries that have followed city and state rules. Under state law, such medical-marijuana dispensaries will be illegal next July. But recreational stores will be allowed to sell medical products.
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“We must ensure there is an even distribution of stores so they are not unfairly concentrated in economically distressed neighborhoods and so that cannabis is accessible to medical patients throughout the city,” Murray said in a statement.
His plan would add 1,650 acres throughout the city available for pot stores.
“Mayor Murray’s effort is an example of the kind of work all communities should be able to expect from their policymakers right now,” said Alison Holcomb, chief author of Initiative 502, which legalized possession and sales of pot in Washington state.
I-502 included the sweeping 1,000-foot buffer zones partly because it was trying to fend off a challenge by the federal government, which still considers all pot illegal. A change in state law this year allows cities to relax the buffer zones.
There are 19 legal pot stores open in Seattle, though the state has licensed 24 stores, according to David Mendoza, the mayor’s marijuana-policy expert.
The first retail licensees struggled to find parcels zoned for storefronts and not within 1,000 feet of prohibited venues frequented by minors. That’s one reason there’s not been a store on Capitol Hill, arguably Seattle’s most pot-friendly neighborhood.
There are 49 existing dispensaries in Seattle with the potential to gain state licenses, Mendoza said. It’s not clear how many new retail licenses in all the state will grant in the city. The state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) is awaiting a report from consultants on the size of the pot market before it considers a cap.
The city could set its own cap, which some existing retailers have advocated. Renton, for example, recently set a limit of five retail stores within city limits, according to Heather Wolf, a Bellingham lawyer who specializes in the pot industry.
But Seattle has no economic basis for such a cap, Mendoza said. “We’d just be pulling a number out of thin air.”
As for the total number allowed, Mendoza pointed to Denver, which has 210 retail stores. He also noted that Seattle had about 120 medical-marijuana storefronts in August before the city started cracking down on dispensaries that were relatively new, didn’t have proper city licenses, and in some cases were allegedly selling to non-patients.
Mendoza said 59 dispensaries have closed due to the clampdown, which hasn’t yet resorted to filing criminal charges.
Even if all 49 dispensaries now open were licensed as retail stores, the roughly 70 legal shops in the city would equal the number of dispensaries open in 2012 before voters approved legal recreational weed, Mendoza said.
Some retailers worry that applicants for licenses will “game” the state system. But LCB investigators will find most or all of those trying to cheat, said an agency spokesman.
Another concern for retailers are the illegal delivery services, which can be found through advertisements on Craigslist or in The Stranger newspaper. Other online services such as Leafly and Weedmaps also provide information on Seattle-area deliveries.
“That is next on our list,” Mendoza said. “But it’s a tough nut to crack because they don’t have storefronts.”
The city will lobby state officials to allow legal delivery services in the future, Mendoza said, as one way to combat the unlicensed, illegal services.
“The black market has gone almost entirely to delivery services,” he said.
The City Council is scheduled to hold a Dec. 1 public hearing on Murray’s plan in its land-use committee.
The committee could vote on the proposal before the end of the year, said an aide to Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the committee.