Pubdate: Fri, 13 Nov 2015
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2015 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Bob Young


Wants to Ease Buffer-Zone Rules

No Change in Distance of Shops From Schools

Seattle could see a significant increase, perhaps a tripling, in the 
number of retail-pot stores in city limits under a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray.

The mayor wants to loosen buffer zones that now require legal pot 
businesses to be 1,000 feet from child-care centers, libraries, 
recreation facilities, public parks and transit centers. Murray would 
decrease the required distance to 500 feet, roughly a city block or two.

But he would keep the 1,000-foot distance between pot businesses and 
elementary and secondary schools and public playgrounds. He would 
also create a new buffer of 500 feet between legal pot stores.

Murray's plan is aimed at bringing into the legal market the 
long-standing medical-marijuana dispensaries that have followed city 
and state rules. Under state law, such medical-marijuana dispensaries 
will be illegal next July. But recreational stores will be allowed to 
sell medical products.

"We must ensure there is an even distribution of stores so they are 
not unfairly concentrated in economically distressed neighborhoods 
and so that cannabis is accessible to medical patients throughout the 
city," Murray said in a statement.

His plan would add 1,650 acres throughout the city available for pot stores.

"Mayor Murray's effort is an example of the kind of work all 
communities should be able to expect from their policymakers right 
now," said Alison Holcomb, chief author of Initiative 502, which 
legalized possession and sales of pot in Washington state.

I-502 included the sweeping 1,000-foot buffer zones partly because it 
was trying to fend off a challenge by the federal government, which 
still considers all pot illegal. A change in state law this year 
allows cities to relax the buffer zones.

There are 19 legal pot stores open in Seattle, though the state has 
licensed 24 stores, according to David Mendoza, the mayor's 
marijuana-policy expert.

The first retail licensees struggled to find parcels zoned for 
storefronts and not within 1,000 feet of prohibited venues frequented 
by minors. That's one reason there's not been a store on Capitol 
Hill, arguably Seattle's most pot-friendly neighborhood.

There are 49 existing dispensaries in Seattle with the potential to 
gain state licenses, Mendoza said. It's not clear how many new retail 
licenses in all the state will grant in the city. The state Liquor 
and Cannabis Board (LCB) is awaiting a report from consultants on the 
size of the pot market before it considers a cap.

The city could set its own cap, which some existing retailers have 
advocated. Renton, for example, recently set a limit of five retail 
stores within city limits, according to Heather Wolf, a Bellingham 
lawyer who specializes in the pot industry.

But Seattle has no economic basis for such a cap, Mendoza said. "We'd 
just be pulling a number out of thin air."

As for the total number allowed, Mendoza pointed to Denver, which has 
210 retail stores. He also noted that Seattle had about 120 
medical-marijuana storefronts in August before the city started 
cracking down on dispensaries that were relatively new, didn't have 
proper city licenses, and in some cases were allegedly selling to non-patients.

Mendoza said 59 dispensaries have closed due to the clampdown, which 
hasn't yet resorted to filing criminal charges.

Even if all 49 dispensaries now open were licensed as retail stores, 
the roughly 70 legal shops in the city would equal the number of 
dispensaries open in 2012 before voters approved legal recreational 
weed, Mendoza said.

Some retailers worry that applicants for licenses will "game" the 
state system. But LCB investigators will find most or all of those 
trying to cheat, said an agency spokesman.

Another concern for retailers are the illegal delivery services, 
which can be found through advertisements on Craigslist or in The 
Stranger newspaper. Other online services such as Leafly and Weedmaps 
also provide information on Seattle-area deliveries.

"That is next on our list," Mendoza said. "But it's a tough nut to 
crack because they don't have storefronts."

The city will lobby state officials to allow legal delivery services 
in the future, Mendoza said, as one way to combat the unlicensed, 
illegal services.

"The black market has gone almost entirely to delivery services," he said.

The City Council is scheduled to hold a Dec. 1 public hearing on 
Murray's plan in its land-use committee.

The committee could vote on the proposal before the end of the year, 
said an aide to Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who chairs the committee.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom