Aberdeen passes emergency pot moratorium

In a highly unusual move not employed since the early 1990s, the Aberdeen City Council voted last night to suspend its usual rules for adopting ordinances and fast-track an emergency declaration imposing a moratorium on the “location, licensing, permitting and operation of medical marijuana collective gardens, marijuana processing, marijuana producing, and marijuana retailing businesses,” effective immediately.

The urgency was predicated by confusion over legalities surrounding medical and recreational marijuana use in Washington state, both of which have been approved heartily by voters through the initiative process but which are still considered illegal in many instances by state and federal authorities.

The city attorney, Eric Nelson, noted city officials are being queried every day by citizens eager to be licensed to be involved in the sale of marijuana once the state sets rules on production and sales. The state is still working those rules out and the U.S. Department of Justice still hasn’t said how it will respond, Nelson noted.

Nelson recommended the emergency procedure so a public hearing could be held at the council meeting on July 10, without a lengthy State Environmental Policy Act review.

He conceded he had been asked by several council members about the need to appear to “rush this through.” He said it was really the actions of a council “needing a timeout where you need some time to think about an issue before you have things just happening to you.”

State law mandates that cities who use the moratorium recourse schedule a public hearing within 90 days after the moratorium is enacted, he said.

After some confusion on the reading by Council President Kathi Hoder, she amended it so the council could vote to consider the measure in final reading and arrive at the moratorium status.

“Moratoriums are proposed because they deal with uncertain issues,” Nelson noted. “It’s hard to predict what might exactly happen” so the sooner the moratorium is enacted the better, he said.

Mayor Bill Simpson said in the last three months, he has had “three requests about putting marijuana dispensaries here in town; there’s the urgency.”

At first, council member Jim Cook was upset about the inclusion of collective gardens, but was mollified after further explanation by Nelson that although it may not have been vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee, cities retain the right to enact zoning regulations and permitting laws that might affect the establishment of the gardens. Aberdeen currently has a “void” regarding permits and zoning around voter approved marijuana laws.

Alice Phelps noting “we have an audience here now” suggested a public hearing be held last night. Several members reminded her the public has the right to be notified of the hearing. In aiming to clarify the need for the moratorium, Phelps asked “this just stops the need for marijuana going on at all, is that it?”

“Well, our ordinances aren’t magic enough that they are going to stop all marijuana going, I’ll guarantee you that,” Nelson said to general laughter, including Phelps’.

Nelson said he did not suggest the moratorium earlier, though other nearby cities such as McCleary have done it, because the sale of marijuana is still illegal. He changed his opinion because the closer we get to the “starting gate when people can actually get licenses from the (state) Liquor Control Board” then the more pressure there is for people to “push the envelope,” requesting the ability to sell marijuana.

The moratorium can be renewed if license procedures are not in place by the time it expires.

The confusion over the U.S. Department of Justice’s stance, could put city authorization into legal jeopardy which is another reason for the “timeout” provided by the moratorium.

“We are still waiting for Mr. (Eric) Holder’s Justice Department to come forward and say what they plan to do,” Nelson said. On May 5, the Drug Enforcement Administration sent out notices to 10 marijuana dispensaries in the Seattle area giving them cease and desist order at the risk of prosecution, he said.

State laws regarding recent recreational use and distribution are also still in play, he said.

The council ended up voted unanimously for the moratorium, the first granted since the early 1990s when a moratorium was enacted to give the city time to decide on new design standards for East Aberdeen, standards that ended up “never being implemented,” he said.

The public hearing about the marijuana issues are scheduled be held at the council meeting on July 10.