Marijuana zoning updates to be considered

This week the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will consider an update to the city’s zoning for marijuana-related activity.

Even though marijuana has been legal in Washington State for a relatively short period of time, it has nevertheless been legal long enough to create a morass of conflicting laws. Partly this is because legalization happened through two avenues: medicinal and recreational.  The medicinal effort came first in 2011, and allowed for home and “collective” gardens up to certain limits — and didn’t require a license from the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Then in 2012 the citizen-passed Initiative 502 allowed for possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use and directed the Liquor Control Board to establish a licensing program for those partaking in marijuana commerce, including growing and selling it. While independent in theory, many commercial marijuana operators wanted to sell their products for medicinal use as well, and that has created a conflicting overlap between the two thrusts of legalization.

This year the legislature passed SSB 5052, which attempted to sort out this mess. It phases out the “collectives” authorized in the original medical marijuana act, replacing them with “cooperatives” which are required to be licensed by the state, located within a residence, and more than a mile away from an existing marijuana retailer.

Which brings us to Seattle regulations. The city has its own set of rules on marijuana activity. They define a specific threshold (number of plants, amount of marijuana sold) beyond which it is deemed “major marijuana activity,” and limits the land use zones in which major and non-major marijuana activities can take place; the theory being that non-major activity can be done in cooperatives and major activity is commercial in nature. Also, non-major activity doesn’t require a state license.

There is a concern that some small-time operations are growing and/or selling their product without a license and (saving the license cost) deliver their product at a lower cost than licensed operations; sellers do this in part by ensuring that the amount they have in stock at any given time is below the threshold of “major marijuana activity.”

All that is preface to the ordinance that the City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will be considering. The proposal, which was submitted by the Mayor’s office, does three things:

  1. adjusts the thresholds for “major marijuana activity” to find a better balance with the intent;
  2. adjust separation and dispersal distances between sites undertaking major marijuana activity;
  3. updating the odor ordinances, since marijuana operations can have an effect on surrounding properties.

The new standard for major marijuana activity includes:

  • any production or processing that happens outside of a residential dwelling;
  • in a dwelling, production of more than 15 plants, or 60 for a state-registered cooperative  (the old standard was 45);
  • in a dwelling, processing  into food of more than 15 plants, or 60 for a cooperative (old limit was 72 ounces);
  • in a dwelling, processing into anything other than food;
  • all selling or delivery (old limit was 72 ounces or more sold or delivered).

That should close the loopholes in the old ordinances.

The distance and dispersal rules are tricky and need to find their own balance too;  obviously the distance from schools and playgrounds (1000 feet) are important, and they remain in place, but the limit for a number of other kinds of public facilities including libraries, transit centers and child care centers is reduced to 500 feet. As for dispersal, the original intent was to prevent clusters of retail stores that would change the nature of a neighborhood; but some have found that many commercial real estate managers refuse to lease space to marijuana businesses, so the distance requirement is shortened to 500 feet between major marijuana activities that involve retail transactions, which should hopefully give business owners more options.

The updated odor control standards require vents to direct away from neighbors, and give the appropriate authorities the power to require filters or other mitigation of odors that affect neighbors.

The Department of Planning and Development has a detailed report that lays out the issues and reasoning well for this new ordinance. This week the committee will hear a presentation and public comment, and the proposed ordinance may get revised before it comes up for a vote (probably in the following committee meeting). Assuming it passes out of committee, it will then need to go before the full Council for approval. It will be a bit of a rush to get that all done before the end of the calendar year and the new Council takes over; we shall see what happens.