Hearing stirs the pot on Walla Walla County marijuana rules

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WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County commissioners got an earful Tuesday when they held a hearing on rules for recreational marijuana.

Some speakers urged the county to move ahead to adopt regulations on growing, distributing and selling pot.

Others, however, advocated a moratorium until more is known about possible legal fallout.

After listening to speakers, commissioners Perry Dozier, Jim Johnson and Greg Tompkins voted to continue the hearing until Sept. 16 to take written testimony and give legal staff additional time to work on the matter for unincorporated areas of the county.

Walla Walla County, like many other city and county governments, is seeking to come to grips with the ramifications of Intiative 502, which legalized the production, processing and sale of marijuana for recreational use. Regionally, Kennewick and Pasco have approved moratoriums on developing local ordinances. The city of Richland will decide on the issue this fall.

Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week his office won’t sue to stop Washington and Colorado from allowing recreational marijuana, the county should still be concerned about running afoul of the federal Controlled Substances Act, said county Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jesse Nolte.

According to the attorney general’s memorandum, the federal government expects states to enact strong regulations to control the marijuana market. If any regulations enacted by the county failed to address the federal expectations, the county could find itself in trouble, Nolte said.

“The Department of Justice cannot rewrite federal law,” he told commissioners. “If you’re doing something that violates federal law, you’re still liable for prosecution.”

Another area of concern is the land use perspective. The county would have to designate where marijuana could be grown, processed and sold, what zoning regulations would apply and what permitting would be needed, such as conditional use permits.

But the first two speakers at Monday’s hearing said this was an opportunity for the county to break new ground, especially in regard to helping medical marijuana users.

“As it stands now, no one is regulating it. We have an opportunity here in Walla Walla to be a pilot project, just like Seattle,” said Debra Callahan, a Waitsburg City Council member who said she was speaking for herself.

The next speaker, Mike McClure, said he agreed with Callahan. “I believe there are answers and we can enact laws that work for the community,” he said.

He urged commissioners to form a committee to work out solutions to the regulatory problems.

But the next speaker, Claire Valente, said she was very much in favor of a moratorium and would prefer to have the county “opt out of I-502” entirely and block sales and distribution of marijuana.

Although marijuana can be bought now, “there’s a difference between having it illegal and available and having it available and legal,” she said.

College Place Mayor Rick Newby also spoke in favor of a moratorium.

“Last year over 60 percent of College Place voters said `no’ to I-502, reflecting the understanding that attempts to contravene federal drug laws are a prescription for ongoing legal conflict, increased criminal activity and higher costs,” he told commissioners.

A moratorium will provide the time necessary for the county to consult and collaborate with citizens, cities, other counties and other agencies to evaluate impacts of implementing I-502, Newby said.

“The city of College Place is particularly interested in partnering with the county and other jurisdictions to determine the most effective way to protect the health, safety and welfare of those within our community and within our region,” he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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