A Failure to Coordinate = Citizen Ridicule

In November 2012, with one of the highest election turnouts, Washington State voters legalized recreational marijuana. Though the initiative passed 55 percent to 45 percent statewide, the measure failed in 19 of Washington’s 39 counties.

The excitement over the decriminalization of marijuana generated a new industry, with job opportunities and revenue sources via sales and excise taxes. The state’s liquor control board (LCB) became the state regulator to issue licenses for these operations. However, questions arose as to where the production, processing and retail facilities should be located. This became a city/county responsibility through their zoning regulations.

The initiative provided that marijuana production, processing or retail outlets could not be established within a 1000-foot distance from the perimeter grounds of elementary or secondary schools, recreation centers, child care centers, public parks, public transit centers, libraries or any game arcades whose access is not restricted to people aged 21 years or older. On the surface, this seems reasonable. But, how would you feel as a parent or business owner if a “pot” establishment opened up right next door?

The legislative language does not require the liquor control board (LCB) to abide by city/county zoning regulations when they issue a license. A city/county can appeal the LCB decision, but the LCB is not obligated to consider it. An applicant, with license in hand, can can choose to ignore local zoning laws and begin operations. Thus the burden of enforcement falls to the city/county. Does this make sense?

Recall, 19 counties voted against legalizing marijuana. When some imposed moratoriums preventing recreational marijuana operations within their jurisdiction, the LCB, the American Civil Liberties Union, the fledgling marijuana industry and others protested. In January 2014, several state legislators jumped into the fray by introducing a bill “requiring” all local jurisdictions to abide by the state voter’s mandate despite local rejection. Shortly afterwards, the State Attorney General issued a nonbinding opinion stating the initiative did not pre-empt cities or counties from outlawing marijuana production, processing and retail operations within their jurisdictional boundary.

In 2015, the legislature partially addressed the issue. With the adoption of a comprehensive marijuana law, the LCB was instructed to follow local zoning codes in the reduction of distance requirements (1000 feet)– if a local jurisdiction had adopted such reductions– or if marijuana production occurs in a rural area, there must be a minimum of five acres.

Why didn’t they solve the problem by saying the LCB must follow local zoning codes when issuing licenses? This failure to “consider” and “coordinate” fosters citizen criticism of government.

Most citizens lack knowledge of how their government works, at any level. When our federalist system fails to work with unity of effort and purpose, especially on controversial issues, we only increase citizen dissatisfaction. Little wonder they shake their heads, claiming business can do it better. Why not? It’s the only other model to compare. Are situations like this avoidable or is our federalist system so bureaucratically entrenched that Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” are now meaningless?

As public administrators, are we so focused on our “lane” that we fail to remember we’re part of a bigger system that needs better coordination and integration? How many of us consider the impacts on other jurisdictions and levels of government in the legislative or rule-making process? Is there a way to correct this situation?

In my humble opinion, there is. Think joint.

I’ll explain in my next blog.

Submitted by Larry Keeton

One thought on “A Failure to Coordinate = Citizen Ridicule

  1. I am wondering if local governments know how to collaborate in this instance? Conflict inherently requires 2 lanes of understanding and at times compromise.


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