Urban Politics #341: Medical Marijuana Land Use Rules

Home » Urban Politics #341: Medical Marijuana Land Use Rules

dope graphicApproving marijuana land use regulations in Seattle has proven uniquely challenging.

What laws Seattle can pass depends on state and federal law. Usually, that’s clear and well established. Here, it was unclear and not well established, and shifted regularly throughout 2013.

While the Council worked on regulations, the Liquor Control Board was developing rules for implementing I-502, which legalized recreational marijuana under state law. The federal government’s position was unclear as well, combining silence about I-502 with occasional warning letters and raids on medical dispensaries.

It’s no wonder the Council delayed voting several times after a May committee vote, before acting to approve the legislation on October 7. SUMMARY OF BILL

Council Bill 117781 does the following:

  • Sets size limits for growing operations in industrial zones, at 20,000 square feet for IG2, 10,000 for IB and IC, and 5,000 in IG1 for currently existing operations
  • Sets limit equivalent to one collective garden for medical patients (45 plants, up to 72 ounces) in residential zones
  • Sets a date of January 1, 2015 for marijuana businesses to obtain a state license

The practical effect is to allow marijuana businesses in commercial and industrial areas. Medical marijuana businesses with city licenses when the ordinance goes into effect—there are currently over 200—could operate through the end of 2014 in commercial and industrial areas. Recreational businesses would need to meet these zoning limits, as well as be 1,000 feet from schools, day care, parks, libraries, and other areas, in accordance with I-502.

Council also sent a letter to the Liquor Control Board requesting that the Board consider geographic dispersal of the 21 recreational stores they have allocated to Seattle.

The legislation further states that the city is monitoring state regulations, and may need to update its own laws in the future.

I covered the background leading up to this bill in an earlier blog post.


An August 29 memo from the US Department of Justice clarified the federal position of the Obama administration. In short, if strictly regulated by state and local governments in a way that does not undermine federal enforcement priorities, including public safety and health, it appears the federal government will allow our state experiment in federalism to continue.

This is a bold position, given that marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal law—in the same category as heroin and LSD. It represents a significant step back in the failed war on drugs, which has led to disproportionate impacts on communities of color and the poor.

A subsequent statement from the US Attorney for Western Washington provided further clarification:

“The continued operation and proliferation of unregulated, for-profit entities outside of the state’s regulatory and licensing scheme is not tenable and violates both state and federal law.”

This struck me as a clear warning that the current, largely unregulated state of medical marijuana in Washington isn’t acceptable to the DOJ. This could signal that if the state legislature doesn’t act during the 2014 session, the federal government could take action against medical dispensaries.

This changed my perspective, and was the impetus for my supporting a January 1, 2015 date; I had originally favored more time.

Setting the January 1, 2015 date is designed to put pressure on state legislature, and provide a clear impetus for getting something done in 2014. The State legislature required the WSLCB and Departments of Health and Revenue to bring recommendations for medical marijuana to the state legislation by the end of 2014. The first draft recommendations are scheduled for release later in October.

My primary goal is to ensure the needs of medical patients are met. I’m skeptical the needs of patients can be met in the recreational system, given the need for specialized forms. Any resolution must meet the needs of patients with real medical needs, some of whom are very low or no income.

In 2011, when the City Council sent a letter to the state legislature supporting the medical marijuana licensing bill that was partially vetoed, there were 30 or so medical dispensaries in Seattle. Vagueness helped lead to an explosive growth of dispensaries: there are now over 200.


Washington is, along with Colorado, one of two states creating the first legal, regulated recreational marijuana market. How well we succeed could have a significant impact on legalization efforts in other states.

And not only that: we’ll have a new US President in a few years. He or she could decide to enforce federal law in Washington state, whether we like it or not.

It’s thus critically important to the long-term process that we do this as responsibly as possible. That’s why I’m inclined toward a more conservative position. Ultimately, success here can breed success elsewhere, and that’s the best long-term protection for legal marijuana.

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