Pubdate: Mon, 23 Nov 2015
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2015 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Bob Young


Medical-Marijuana Merchants

Smaller Buffer Zones Would Rule Out Some Current Sites

Alex Cooley was a pioneer in legitimizing the pot industry in 
Seattle. But after seeing Mayor Ed Murray's plan for licensing more 
pot merchants, Cooley wonders why he bothered.

The mayor's proposal would not allow Cooley, the first medical 
marijuana grower to come out of the shadows and gain all appropriate 
city building permits, to continue farming at his Sodo location 
because it is too close to a childcare center.

"Why did I work voluntarily with the city to go through the front 
door," Cooley said at a City Hall meeting last week, "when all of my 
permits provide no value to me right now?"

Cooley and other unhappy entrepreneurs at the meeting pleaded for 
changes in the mayor's plan to bring Seattle's long-standing, 
ruleabiding medical-marijuana merchants into the state's licensed system.

Murray's plan has three main prongs. It reduces the buffer zones 
between pot businesses and some venues, such as child-care centers 
and libraries, from 1,000 to 500 feet. It keeps the 1,000-foot buffer 
in place for schools and playgrounds. And in an effort to keep pot 
businesses from clustering in certain areas, it requires that they 
must be at least 500 feet apart.

It would add 1,650 acres of available land in the city where legal 
pot merchants could potentially locate.

Some, including Cooley, thought the buffers should be relaxed.

To fend off a possible federal challenge, the state's pot law 
initially required businesses to be at least 1,000 feet from venues 
frequented by youth such as schools, parks, libraries and more. But 
recognizing such buffers made locations for pot shops scarce, state 
law was changed earlier this year so cities could reduce buffers to 
100 feet, except in the case of schools and playgrounds.

Cooley's problem is that his company, Solstice, is about 470 feet, he 
estimates, from Starbucks' headquarters, which has a child-care 
center. Solstice's indoor farm, operating with city permits since 
early 2013, has not drawn any complaints from Starbucks, he said.

David Mendoza, the mayor's marijuana-policy adviser, said Cooley may 
have a problem besides buffer distances. The state Liquor and 
Cannabis Board (LCB) may not be issuing more growers' licenses, 
Mendoza said. Unless it does, Cooley's medical-marijuana farm would 
not be legal under state law come July.

Cooley believes the board will issue more licenses. What's more, 
other options exist for his facility, he said, such as selling it to 
a licensee looking for a new location. "There are multiple ways this 
facility could live on," he said.

James Lathrop, founder of Seattle's first legal pot shop, urged city 
officials to lower buffers to 100 feet where the state allows. The 
buffers, Lathrop said, are not federal law, but a remnant of Ronald 
Reagan's "war on drugs," derived from federal sentencing guidelines 
that can dole out harsher penalties for drug-dealing near schools.

"Highly restrictive zoning is nothing more than a continuation of 
prohibition," said Lathrop, CEO of Cannabis City in Sodo.

Several entrepreneurs who testified at the city meeting did not like 
the mayor's 500-foot dispersion proposal either. Because of zoning 
and buffers, viable locations are already scarce, they said. The 
dispersion rule would make them more scarce.

It also would set up races to get LCB-approved licenses for viable 
spots, said dispensary owner Ryan Kunkel, who predicted lawsuits from 
those who complied with other rules and lost potential locations in such races.

Mendoza said prejudiced landlords are likely more the problem than 
available locations.

Others alternatives suggested by entrepreneurs: cap the number of 
licenses in the city, allow different buffers in different parts of 
the city, measure the buffers differently than the shortest distance 
from one property line to another.

"We do take them very seriously," Mendoza said of concerns and 
counterproposals. "We're trying to balance interests. We have 
received significant backlash from community groups concerned about 

The mayor was going to propose 250-foot buffers when he believed the 
LCB was going to cap the number of retail licenses, Mendoza said. But 
when he heard otherwise he opted for 500 feet.

The LCB will cap retail licenses, said spokesman Brian Smith, after 
the agency gets a consultant's report, which may be complete this 
week. As for grower licenses, Smith said the board is still 
processing the initial wave of applications from almost two years 
ago. The agency isn't now taking new applications.

If the City Council is open to changing Murray's proposal, Mendoza 
said, the mayor is "open to having that discussion."

But some neighborhoods are uncomfortable with a buffer as low as 100 
feet. "There was some consternation with 250 feet," Mendoza said.

Entrepreneurs also are worried the council may not vote on the 
proposal this year. If not, that means entrepreneurs would need to 
lobby four new members of the council next year whom they do not 
know, and who may not be steeped in the issues.

Meanwhile, one lawsuit has been filed to stop the mayor's enforcement 
and licensing plan for bringing longstanding medical-marijuana 
operations into the state's legal system.

Murray's plan is scheduled for a Dec. 1 public hearing in the 
council's last-use committee, chaired by Mike O'Brien.

O'Brien said his crystal ball looks "a little foggy" on whether the 
council will vote on Murray's plan. It would be hard, he said, to 
move such a policy change through the council in December if it faced 
significant opposition.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom