It’s one thing for Washington state residents to approve legislation that puts them squarely at odds with federal law. But it’s something else again to demand that local governments put their heads in the same noose.
That’s the message Joyce McDonald, chair of the Pierce County Council, delivered on Wednesday during a public hearing in Olympia on Initiative 502, which legalizes recreational use of marijuana under certain conditions.
The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing — one of a series of hearings hosted around the state by the Washington State Liquor Control Board — was to take public testimony on what those conditions should be.
McDonald, however, urged the board to consider granting local governments an opt-out clause should they not wish to clash with federal drug authorities.
“We’re being put in an untenable position,” she said. “We’re being told we have no choice but to enact laws that are a clear violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Local governments shouldn’t have to decide whether to break state laws or federal laws. They shouldn’t have to break laws at all.”
Since I-502 passed last fall, the U.S. Justice Department has resisted requests from Washington’s congressional delegation and governor to clarify its stance. President Obama has publicly stated his administration was “bigger fish to fry.”
Nonetheless, the federal laws are still on the books should a future administration be more diligent about enforcing them, which creates a quandary for local governments.
The Liquor Control Board says local governments have a right to deny applications to grow or distribute the drug, but only if they can show the business poses a threat to health, safety or welfare of the community.
“I’ve heard many local governments are saying that they will not allow marijuana businesses because marijuana is illegal federally,” the board’s rules coordinator, Karen McCall, wrote in response to one public inquiry. “The board can’t force a local government to issue a license, but the board will not deny a marijuana license based on zoning.”
“I believe the board is under no obligation to write rules that increase, rather than decrease, the legal burdens and liability of local governments,” McDonald testified.
“In Pierce County, 54 percent of the voters approved I-502 last fall,” said Liquor Control Board member Chris McCall. “Surely they had some expectation the county government would respect that outcome and that recreational marijuana would be available.”
“We’re a nation of laws,” McDonald responded. “We cannot just throw away the law.”
The board is expected to adopt rules regarding sales and distribution of marijuana by Aug. 14, and those rules will be in force until or unless overridden by the Legislature.
“We’re going to have clarity a week from now because there are people waiting to start businesses who need to know the rules,” McCall said. “In a perfect world, there would be a legislative fix for these problems. But I don’t think this current Legislature could muster a two-thirds vote on anything — even something that makes perfect sense.”