Marijuana zoning, possibly the final showdown

This afternoon the full City Council will take up changes to marijuana zoning in the Seattle. This time they might actually pass an ordinance.

The last time the issue came up, it was in Mike O’Brien’s committee, and the Council members in attendance were all over the map. In preparation for this afternoon’s full Council deliberations, the topic was covered in this morning’s Council Briefing. This was the first opportunity for the new Council members (with the exception of Gonzalez, who participated last month, and Herbold, who was staffing former Council member Licata) to get briefed in and take a stand.

The changes are intended to accomplish a few goals:

  1. Set an appropriate buffer for marijuana activities to keep them away from so-called “sensitive locations” such as schools, playgrounds, and daycare sites. This is a bit of a sore point for business owners in the community, as it lumps them in with strip joints — an association they don’t appreciate and argue that they don’t deserve. The buffer from schools is set by the state to 1000 feet, but the state law was revised last year to reduce the buffer from other sensitive sites to just 250 feet and lets municipalities decide whether they want to further restrict it to a larger district.
  2. Set an appropriate dispersion so that clusters of marijuana retail stores can’t form in ways that would be detrimental to specific neighborhoods. This is done by setting a minimum distance between any two retail stores.
  3. Ensure that legitimate retail stores can be established in places where illegal marijuana activity is currently prevalent, in order to force out the illegal sellers.
  4. Promote healthy competition between marijuana business owners, for the benefit of consumers.
  5. Provide a regulatory framework for odor control from marijuana processors.

Now there are some nuances here that are important to understand. First, it’s easy to get “buffer” and “dispersion” confused; they refer to different mechanisms, but they need to be considered together because collectively they control how much area of the city is actually permitted to have marijuana activity. An area with lots of schools and playgrounds may not actually allow for any marijuana activities, or it might be so concentrated that the dispersion only allows for a small number to co-exist (discouraging competition).

Some neighborhoods, especially tourist-friendly historical districts, would like severe restrictions, if not outright banning. And they are getting their wish: marijuana activity is banned in historical districts. But some of those districts feel differently, including Pioneer Square and Belltown where illegal activity is high and an influx of legal, well-regulated businesses would improve the situation. Ballard is apparently of mixed thoughts on this, and a conversation there is ongoing.

It’s also an area of concern for immigrant and low socio-economic status communities, where drugs can be an issue for the community as a whole; in particular the dispersion rules are important to those communities to prevent them from being known as hubs for marijuana sales.

There is also a distinction to be made between marijuana retail outlets and marijuana growers/processors.¬†The retail outlets want to be seen and available to the general public; the growers and processors are just the opposite, as they would prefer to stay low-profile to prevent people trying to break in and steal their product. So while it makes sense to have a large buffer between retail outlets and sensitive sites, the argument isn’t as strong for growers and processors who would like to hide in plain sight. On the other hand, a concentration of growers and processors can create odor problems that argue for increased buffers and dispersion.

So it’s complicated.

Last month, the committee voted to send the updated zoning ordinance to the full Council for approval, but they ran out of time in the legislative session. So now it comes before the newly-installed Council, one in which district representation is a priority. Council president Harrell continues to worry that his district has not had enough input and will suffer disproportionately from decreasing the buffer and dispersion. Council member Bagshaw is trying to be responsive to Belltown’s desire to legitimize the marijuana business. Council member O’Brien is patiently waiting out Ballard’s internal conversation. Council member Herbold, so far, seems to be on the same page as her former boss Licata in wanting to reduce buffers and dispersion as much as possible. Council members Johnson, Juarez, and Sawant have been nearly silent, and Council member Burgess is holding his cards close but seems to be on the conservative end close to Harrell.

Council President Harrell may be alone in opposing the marijuana zoning changes
Council President Harrell may be alone in opposing the marijuana zoning changes

When the Council takes up the bill this afternoon, there will be four amendments proposed:

  1. O’Brien will propose that the buffer be reduced to 250 feet for non-retail activities (i.e. producers and processors). Harrell will likely oppose this, as he has stated his lack of confidence in the state Liquor and Cannabis Board’s ability to enforce the odor regulations and he has noted that it would be nearly impossible to roll it back to a larger buffer at a later date. But the other Council members will likely support it.
  2. Herbold will propose that the buffer be reduced to 250 feet for retail locations in certain specific areas downtown, as requested by residents and businesses in those areas, to try to displace the illegal activity currently present.
  3. Burgess, Gonzalez, and Herbold will propose a dispersion  for retail locations that allows a maximum of 2 stores within a 1000-foot distance, in order to balance the avoidance of clustering with allowing for a competitive market. The notion here is that if the buffer is reduced to 250 feet, that opens up enough area that a 1000-foot dispersion is workable.
  4. O’Brien will offer an amendment containing “additional recitals” — essentially cleanup language.

The sense from the discussion this morning is that with the exception of Harrell’s objections, these amendments have the support of the rest of the Board members, so we should expect all four amendments to be adopted and the bill to pass. But there will likely be more discussion and speechifying along the way — including citizens and business owners speaking during the public comment session.

If you’re so inclined, you can watch this morning’s discussion here.