The marijuana store in Key Center could close by July 1. Photo by Ted Olinger, KP News

The Pierce County Council voted Dec. 15 to hold a one-issue advisory-only election April 26 to gauge whether or not local residents want retail marijuana stores and growers to operate in unincorporated areas of Pierce County, like the Key Peninsula.

Clint Pipkin, co-owner of Herb N Wellness, the medical marijuana dispensary in Key Center, said, “Pierce County has already voted this in. The Republicans on the county council are calling for a redo at a cost of $425,000, even though it (the result) is nonbinding.”

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young (District 7), who represents the Key Peninsula, said, “Typically you have an advisory vote before you take action. We’ve already repealed the local prohibition.”

On Dec. 15, 2015, the council voted to lift the moratorium on recreational marijuana shops and grow operations in unincorporated Pierce County effective July 1, but also approved a special election April 26 for Proposition 1, asking voters living in unincorporated Pierce County whether that moratorium should, in fact, be lifted.

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald (District 2) added the special election to the council’s vote to repeal the moratorium.

“This is about maintaining local control,” said McDonald. Current bans in cities like Gig Harbor have pushed marijuana shops and producers into unincorporated areas that don’t have local control, like the KP, she said. “It’s like the cities are saying it’s not OK in my town, but it’s OK in yours.”

“It’s a last ditch effort,” said Young, “but the law will remain the law regardless of the outcome.”

If the advisory vote on Prop. 1 is “no,” meaning against repealing the moratorium, the council would need to reverse its previous action and the county executive would have to sign off on it. “I don’t see four votes (of seven) on the council to make that happen,” said Young.

“I would like to hear from the people in unincorporated Pierce County,” said McDonald. “Wouldn’t it be rather difficult to ask them for an advisory vote and then ignore their advisory vote?”

In 2012, voters passed Initiative 502, legalizing possession of certain amounts of marijuana for private use, though users can be arrested for driving under the influence or using in public. Licensed marijuana businesses can grow, process and sell marijuana in some counties if they follow state law.

Under that law, retail marijuana shops in Pierce County must have a license from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board, and other relevant county permits. Conflicting interpretations of state and federal law have created confusion among retailers, consumers and police, resulting in both lax enforcement and federal prosecutions. The federal Controlled Substances Act prohibits production, possession and use of marijuana in all circumstances.

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 5052 in April 2015, requiring all marijuana retailers without a recreational license to close by July 1. All medical marijuana dispensaries in the state will cease operations by that date.

Pipkin has applied for a recreational license, but may close even if he gets it because his store near the corner of the KP Highway and Olson Drive KPN is within 1,000 feet of a public library. “I’m 140 feet too close,” he said. “But there are six different establishments that are within 200 yards of the library that all sell alcohol.”

Pipkin and his brother, Todd Dote, have been running the business at its current location since purchasing the building a year ago. “I’m going to apply for a conditional use permit to keep my store open that’s been there since 2010. My brother and I got $300,000 in this business,” said Pipkin, including the now closed stores he operated on the KP Highway near 118th Street. Those stores will not reopen due to rural zoning restrictions, but Pipkin and Dote kept their staff of eight and employ them all at the Key Center store.

“I’m kind of on the fence,” said Cindy Worden, who serves on the KP Community Council and is president of the KP Citizens Against Crime task force.

“I’ve never had a problem with medical marijuana,” she said. “I’ve got a relative who used it with a prescription for cancer treatment and is still alive because of it.” Worden does not consider the dispensaries a nuisance, she said. “You hardly know anything is going on over there at all.”

“But you bring it out in public, now it’s my business,” said Worden. “How do we curtail the DUI aspect? What will the prosecution rate be? Now it’s legal, what do we do with that?”

“In the bulk of the county you won’t see (marijuana stores) at all, and there’s really only one spot on the Key Peninsula that will work under the current zoning,” said Young, if the moratorium ends as planned. “But there are people (on the KP) who do need this option, it’s working for chronic pain or anxiety, even the VA is working with them. It would be a real burden for folks to have to go to Tacoma.”

But if the vote goes against allowing marijuana in unincorporated Pierce County, it would be incumbent on the council to act, said McDonald. “I would introduce an ordinance that would assert the will of the people,” she said.

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