Marijuana regulations revisited

The Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee once again took up the revisions to the marijuana regulations, and once again it was a protracted discussion — though it showed the Council members at their best.

The public comment session was filled with representatives of the marijuana industry arguing that the dispersion distances need to be shrunk to the minimum allowed by state law; their arguments were threefold:

  1. The restrictions as currently proposed would not open up enough real estate for marijuana real estate sites. Retailers complain today that landlords are still spooked by the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so many are unwilling to rent their space to marijuana retailers. The dispersion rule takes many potential retail locations off the market entirely.
  2. Marijuana retailers are upstanding citizens and it doesn’t make sense to treat them the same way as strip clubs.
  3. Having a larger presence of legitimate marijuana retailers will squeeze out the illicit ones, which is in everyone’s best interest.

Since the last discussion, the city central staff have developed a set of potential amendments to the current version of the ordinance.

Most of the amendments are fairly technical changes: refining definitions (e.g. “major marijuana activity”) and clarifying other terms.

Council members Burgess, Harrell and Licata also proposed amendments: Burgess’ deals with the effective dates of the ordinances, and Harrell’s and Licata’s deal with buffers and dispersions, and some legacy zoning restrictions.

For clarification: a “buffer” is a required distance between a major marijuana activity (retail, growing or processing) and a sensitive location such as a school, playground, transit center, arcade, or library; and “dispersal” is a required distance between two marijuana retail locations.

The current rules prevent marijuana retail activities within 1000 feet of the most sensitive sites: schools and playgrounds. But there is disagreement as to what the buffer should be for other sensitive sites. The state law was recently amended to allow for the buffer to be as small at 100 feet, though Seattle ordinance currently requires 1000 feet. The Mayor proposed that it should be 500 feet; Council member Harrell proposed 1000 feet, and Council member Licata proposed 250 feet. Licata reiterated the argument that 250 feet will squeeze out the illicit marijuana sellers.

A wrinkle in this is that the State Liquor Control Board will be announcing limits on the number of retail outlets that are allowed within specific regions, and at this point there is no prediction as to what the limit for Seattle will be.

Harrell argued that we don’t actually know if reducing the buffer will erode the illicit marijuana market because Seattle is leading the market, and that if Seattle makes the critical decision wrong it will have a disparate negative effect on people of color and their neighborhoods. He claims that it would be irresponsible to lower it without good information on the effect it would have and without input from the communities that would be most affected. One of the city staff pointed out that currently the retail shops are concentrated in the Central District, and suggested that keeping the buffer high would further concentrate the retail stores there.

Denver came up frequently as a point of comparison. Denver has about 200 retail stores now; their buffer is 1000 feet, but there are far fewer sensitive uses that need to be buffered from versus what Seattle is proposing. (Seattle has 20 open for business now, with another 12 working their way through licensing and 60 “bad actors” recently being closed).

Harrell reiterated that it’s a critical decision to take the buffer down to 500 or 250, and one that can’t be taken back after the fact, so he would like to take it slower and not make the decision today.

Godden stated support for 250 feet; Burgess worried that going to 250 might be too much too fast (and to Harrell’s point can’t be undone) and thought that 500 might be a better first step.

The city staff argued that the buffer and dispersal need to be considered, since together they can force dispersal of stores around the city and prevent them from being clustered in a few neighborhoods.

Harrell hammered on the need for additional input from the community, pointing out that the public comment speakers were all from the business side and didn’t represent citizens.

Gonzalez (who had previously worked on the issue in her prior role as legal counsel to the Mayor) noted that from her analysis the 500 foot and 250 foot options significantly distribute around the city the places where marijuana retail locations are allowed.

Committee chair O’Brien noted that the council members as a whole all seem to want the same thing: to distribute the retail locations around the city and prevent inappropriate clustering.

Licata’s amendment to change the buffer to 250 feet failed on a 3-3 vote; Licata, Gonzalez and Godden voted for it; Burgess, Harrell and O’Brien against. Harrell put forth his motion to change the buffer back to 1000 feet (the current version of the bill says 500); that didn’t even get a second and also died, so the buffer remains at a compromise of 500 feet.

Licata proposed that the dispersion distance be reduced to 350 feet; after discussion that paralleled the buffer discussion, it passed 4-2 (Harrell and Burgess voted against it).

Amendments to allow one retail outlet in each of the Ballard and Pioneer Square historic districts were put forth; but there was a general concern that the Council had not heard enough input from those communities to know whether there was support for doing something this specific; both amendments were held for future consideration.  As part of that discussion, O’Brien made it clear that he didn’t want to pass it out of committee today.

Burgess offered an amendment to change the day that the bill takes effect to “immediate” i.e. the day the Mayor signs it. That passed quickly.

Burgess then moved to pass it out of committee and schedule it for the January 11th full council meeting — when it will be considered by the new Council. Burgess argued that this needs to continue to move forward since it’s a public health and public safety issue and he worries that it will get bogged down if it stays in committee and might not get approved until February. That motion passed.

All the Council members present recognized that much more community input is required and the bill needs more work. But it was an interesting example of the Council dealing with their differences like adults, listening to each other, and fining compromises and solutions that are workable. It will be a busy holiday break for the Council, and we’ll see where they end up on January 11.