Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to create a path to state licenses for Seattle’s longstanding medical-marijuana entrepreneurs has hit resistance from some it aims to help.
Alex Cooley was a pioneer in legitimizing the pot industry in Seattle. But after seeing Mayor Ed Murray’s plan for licensing more pot merchants, Cooley wonders why he bothered.
The mayor’s proposal would not allow Cooley, the first medical-marijuana grower to come out of the shadows and gain all appropriate city building permits, to continue farming at his Sodo location because it is too close to a child-care center.
“Why did I work voluntarily with the city to go through the front door,” Cooley said at a City Hall meeting last week, “when all of my permits provide no value to me right now?”
Cooley and other unhappy entrepreneurs at the meeting pleaded for changes in the mayor’s plan to bring Seattle’s long-standing, rule-abiding medical-marijuana merchants into the state’s licensed system.
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Murray’s plan has three main prongs. It reduces the buffer zones between pot businesses and some venues, such as child-care centers and libraries, from 1,000 to 500 feet. It keeps the 1,000-foot buffer in place for schools and playgrounds. And in an effort to keep pot businesses from clustering in certain areas, it requires that they must be at least 500 feet apart.
It would add 1,650 acres of available land in the city where legal pot merchants could potentially locate.
Some, including Cooley, thought the buffers should be relaxed.
To fend off a possible federal challenge, the state’s pot law initially required businesses to be at least 1,000 feet from venues frequented by youth such as schools, parks, libraries and more. But recognizing such buffers made locations for pot shops scarce, state law was changed earlier this year so cities could reduce buffers to 100 feet, except in the case of schools and playgrounds.
Cooley’s problem is that his company, Solstice, is about 470 feet, he estimates, from Starbucks’ headquarters, which has a child-care center. Solstice’s indoor farm, operating with city permits since early 2013, has not drawn any complaints from Starbucks, he said.
David Mendoza, the mayor’s marijuana-policy adviser, said Cooley may have a problem besides buffer distances. The state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) may not be issuing more growers’ licenses, Mendoza said. Unless it does, Cooley’s medical-marijuana farm would not be legal under state law come July.
Cooley believes the board will issue more licenses. What’s more, other options exist for his facility, he said, such as selling it to a licensee looking for a new location. “There are multiple ways this facility could live on,” he said.
James Lathrop, founder of Seattle’s first legal pot shop, urged city officials to lower buffers to 100 feet where the state allows. The buffers, Lathrop said, are not federal law, but a remnant of Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” derived from federal sentencing guidelines that can dole out harsher penalties for drug-dealing near schools.
“Highly restrictive zoning is nothing more than a continuation of prohibition,” said Lathrop, CEO of Cannabis City in Sodo.
Several entrepreneurs who testified at the city meeting did not like the mayor’s 500-foot dispersion proposal either. Because of zoning and buffers, viable locations are already scarce, they said. The dispersion rule would make them more scarce.
It also would set up races to get LCB-approved licenses for viable spots, said dispensary owner Ryan Kunkel, who predicted lawsuits from those who complied with other rules and lost potential locations in such races.
Mendoza said prejudiced landlords are likely more the problem than available locations.
Others alternatives suggested by entrepreneurs: cap the number of licenses in the city, allow different buffers in different parts of the city, measure the buffers differently than the shortest distance from one property line to another.
“We do take them very seriously,” Mendoza said of concerns and counterproposals. “We’re trying to balance interests. We have received significant backlash from community groups concerned about clustering.”
The mayor was going to propose 250-foot buffers when he believed the LCB was going to cap the number of retail licenses, Mendoza said. But when he heard otherwise he opted for 500 feet.
The LCB will cap retail licenses, said spokesman Brian Smith, after the agency gets a consultant’s report, which may be complete this week. As for grower licenses, Smith said the board is still processing the initial wave of applications from almost two years ago. The agency isn’t now taking new applications.
If the City Council is open to changing Murray’s proposal, Mendoza said, the mayor is “open to having that discussion.”
But some neighborhoods are uncomfortable with a buffer as low as 100 feet. “There was some consternation with 250 feet,” Mendoza said.
Entrepreneurs also are worried the council may not vote on the proposal this year. If not, that means entrepreneurs would need to lobby four new members of the council next year whom they do not know, and who may not be steeped in the issues.
Meanwhile, one lawsuit has been filed to stop the mayor’s enforcement and licensing plan for bringing long-standing medical-marijuana operations into the state’s legal system.
Murray’s plan is scheduled for a Dec. 1 public hearing in the council’s land-use committee, chaired by Mike O’Brien.
O’Brien said his crystal ball looks “a little foggy” on whether the council will vote on Murray’s plan. It would be hard, he said, to move such a policy change through the council in December if it faced significant opposition.