LIBERTY LAKE, Wash. — Past pristine green lawns, around a twisting forested lake road, where winding streets are lined with suburban mansions and shopping centers, people who live in Liberty Lake choose to get around by golf cart.
It’s something that has come to define the affluent community — situated almost exactly on the Washington-Idaho border. Golf carts sit in driveways here alongside luxury SUVs.
“People have said when they come to Liberty Lake that they feel like they have stepped into ‘The Truman Show,’” said Cris Kaminskas, a city councilwoman and the mayor pro tem. “People driving their golf carts, people going to the movies on Friday night.”
This is a family-driven, churchgoing town. And one, Kaminskas said, that is not on board with marijuana legalization.
As the state liquor control board scrambles to license legal marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, municipalities across Washington are deciding which side of the pot game they’ll play on — with remarkably different routes being taken. In January, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson released an opinion that, despite the passage of Initiative 502 statewide, cities are free to make strict zoning rules or ban pot businesses altogether. Moratoriums and outright bans on pot sales in cities across the state quickly followed. Retail pot stores are expected to begin opening in July.
Last week, Marysville — a city just one hour north of Seattle — passed a ban on recreational marijuana businesses there, joining a handful of other cities in the state that are turning a cold shoulder to pot.
And cities like Liberty Lake — where voters didn’t favor I-502 — are leaning in that direction too. Earlier this year, Kaminskas and other city council leaders here passed a six-month moratorium on the sale of recreational marijuana. And if the council makes a decision this summer to ban stores and processors there, anyone with a state-approved license to sell weed will have to go elsewhere. Currently, six licenses with Liberty Lake addresses are pending approval by the liquor control board.
Unlike alcohol prohibition in the early 1900s, this isn’t about use, Kaminskas said; it’s about city identity. Marijuana stores in an affluent bedroom community like Liberty Lake doesn’t make sense, she said.
“We are the first stop coming in from Idaho. If there are people from Idaho coming to buy their marijuana, this is where they are going to stop,” she said. “Personally, I don’t want Liberty Lake to be known as the tourist destination to buy your marijuana. That’s just not what our city is about. Our city is about family, clean, green. It just doesn’t fit.”
Undercutting state law
But framers of Initiative 502 say it really shouldn’t be up to individual communities to decide on something that passed statewide.
Alison Holcomb, the architect of I-502 and the criminal justice director for the state ACLU, said passage means the state liquor control board needs to ensure adequate access to marijuana in order to undercut the black market. Local bans on recreational sales gets in the way of that idea.
And she believes local bans are not legal.
“[Initiative 502] specifically required that the Washington State Liquor Control Board determine the number of retail outlets to be licensed per county,” Holcomb said. “Obviously, allowing counties to ban licensed marijuana businesses altogether would make it impossible to provide adequate legal sources to undercut the black market.”
Holcomb also points to the state Uniform Controlled Substances Act. That law says local laws that are inconsistent with the requirements of state law are essentially null and void.
Holcomb said prohibition on pot by municipalities undercuts the entire intention of I-502.
“It’s shortsighted. There’s this idea that somehow by eliminating legal, regulated businesses in their cities or towns, they’re going to stop marijuana from coming into their communities,” she said. “We’ve got 75 years of experiences that says that’s absolutely not true.”
No local benefit?
In Colorado, which also recently legalized marijuana, Amendment 64 explicitly allows localities to ban marijuana businesses. A law passed the following year provides that 10 percent of a new marijuana tax will be distributed to local governments that allow retail sales, proportionate to their share of sales tax revenues.
In some Washington communities where moratoriums are in place, city officials say they are taking issue with the idea that enforcement, regulation and the problems they say come along with legal pot fall on local government and law enforcement yet they receive little or no financial assistance from the state.
In February nearly 100 mayors signed a letter asking Gov. Jay Inslee to share a slice of the tax revenue from pot sales. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes recently wrote an editorial saying that tax sharing with cities that allow marijuana business is one key way to ensure the black market goes away. As of now, though, Holcomb said about 80 percent of tax dollars go directly to drug prevention, treatment, research, education and evaluation.
Kaminskas said the lack of tax revenue sharing definitely plays into her opinion on restricting marijuana sales in Liberty Lake.
“Frankly, none of the cities will get any additional tax dollars from the state to fight any crime that happens because of [marijuana],” she said. “Businesses with a lot of cash, businesses with some drugs? It’s inevitably going to happen.”
Town blazes different trail
But Washington cities that allow for recreational pot sales will benefit from local sales taxes — and that’s something that communities like North Bonneville are banking on. Unlike Liberty Lake, tiny North Bonneville — which sits on the Columbia River, just across the water from Oregon — is hoping to sell lots of pot.
The 1,000-person bedroom community less than an hour from Portland, Ore., wants to sell pot itself. Mayor Don Stevens said the logic there is that if the city sells marijuana, it controls the business and gets more money.
“There was some concern that with a private party coming in, they’re obviously going to be a businessperson, so the bottom line will be profit margin,” he said. And with North Bonneville in control, “there’s a more community look at the whole process.”
Stevens said the city government could decide to not sell some of the more potent strains of marijuana. And proceeds from pot sales in North Bonneville would go toward proving a better quality of life for residents there.
“We’ve got streets that need to be paved. We’ve got stuff that every small community needs to pay for and less and less money to do those things,” he said. “This isn’t just a money grab.”
But unlike Kaminskas, Stevens said he would like to see his town become a hub for marijuana tourism. Since the news of North Bonneville’s intention to sell pot itself, his phone has been ringing with offers to start Napa Valley–style pot tours there.
He has even seen new businesses start to relocate to North Bonneville.
“We’ve got a guy right now in town who actually is a restaurateur by trade, and he’s been looking for somewhere to open a new restaurant,” Stevens said. And he’s planning to give pot tourists what they want: a brand-new North Bonneville pizza joint.
“There are going to be a lot of people,” Stevens said, laughing, “with the munchies.”
This story has been updated to clarify the explanation of Colorado's Amendment 64 as it pertains to cities banning marijuana businesses.