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Tacoma: Council will drastically revise medical cannabis proposal

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on July 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
July 17, 2012 6:36 pm

Fearing the potential for legal fallout, Tacoma’s City Council is backing away from a zoning and land use plan that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries and community gardens to legally operate in the city.

Instead, the council is planning to introduce a far different proposal next week — one that would revise the city’s nuisance code and provide an explicit enforcement strategy for dealing with so-called “collective garden” grow operations only.

“We are moving to a conversation about collective gardens only,” Councilman Ryan Mello said today. “State law says nothing about dispensaries, it only addresses collective gardens.”

The measure would not permit or allow the gardens, but rather only spell out how the city could enforce them if they were found to exist. City staff and council members still must determine the details of how heavily — or lightly — the city’s enforcement of such grow operations would be.

Last month, the city’s planning commission formally issued recommendations to the council that called to create new zoning and land use regulations for permitting medical cannabis dispensaries and collective garden as legal operations.

That plan would have allowed the community cannabis gardens to operate within Tacoma’s industrial areas and certain downtown and mixed used zones.  Dispensaries would have been allowed in most commercial use areas  – so long as they were 1,000 feet or more away from schools, day cares and churches.

The commission’s proposal largely followed recommendations issued by a citizens’ task force appointed last year by Mayor Marilyn Strickland.

But after the city’s legal staff reviewed the measure, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli advised that it didn’t hold legal water under the state’s medical cannabis law.

“Those are things we cannot, as a city, endorse,” she said today of the recommendations.

Some council members also have objected that the proposal would have concentrated medical pot operations in only a few areas, with South Tacoma shouldering the brunt.

“Based on my review, the planning commission and the task force were trying to fulfill the spirit of our request, but they went outside the bounds of legality,” Mello said.

At today’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the council directed staff to draft a new proposal that would revise the city’s nuisance code to explicitly deal with collective gardens, and to adopt an enforcement strategy for them.

Some council members, including Strickland, signaled they want any  enforcement plan to incorporate the ideals of last year’s voter-approved Proposition 1, which made cannabis-related crimes the city’s lowest enforcement priority.

The council is also expected to remove the proposal based on the planning commission’s recommendation from tonight’s regular meeting agenda.

The new proposal will not address any issues related to medical cannabis dispensaries, which have proliferated throughout the city.  Pauli and council members noted dispensaries aren’t mentioned in the state law, and therefore are illegal businesses.

The spread of pot dispensaries is was the reason the council had sought for a new city policy on medical cannabis-related businesses in the first place. After spending nearly two years trying to deal with such businesses — from issuing license revocations to asking the Legislature to clarify state law — the council last  year adopted a moratorium on city licenses for such dispensaries.

The time out was meant to give the city time to study the issue and find amicable compromise.  The council has always said it wants to find a way to keep such medical pot-related businesses out of parts of the city where they’re unwanted, while still allowing them in some areas to provide safe access for qualified patients.

But the complexity of the medical marijuana issue — complicated in part by layers of local, state and federal laws — made finding a way to develop meaningful legislation difficult, city officials said.

“Given the complexity of what we’re trying to deal with, this is probably the best we can do,” Strickland said Tuesday.

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