Clark County is on the verge of lifting its ban on recreational cannabis businesses. Despite being across Washington and in large cities, including Vancouver and Battle Ground, marijuana shops in unincorporated areas of the county remain illegal.
But a key decision Tuesday night could change that. Clark County councilors will vote following a public hearing on lifting the ban.
“Since Clark County opted to ban marijuana, it's been an ongoing community conversation,” recently elected County Councilor Temple Lentz said.
Washington voters approved recreational cannabis in 2012, with 56% supporting legalization. But state law allows local jurisdictions to prohibit sales. Two years after the state vote, Clark County passed a ban on recreational cannabis businesses and included a clause that the moratorium could be lifted once the federal government delists marijuana as a Schedule I drug.
Clark County has considered changes to the marijuana ordinance in the past, but never had the support from previous councils.
That changed with last year’s election of Lentz, the Council’s only Democrat. She and Republicans John Blom and Julie Olson have all expressed interest in legalizing recreational cannabis, shifting to majority support for lifting the ban for the first time.
“For the folks who want to partake, it makes it easier,” Lentz said. “It's regulated, it's taxable, and it just seems to make sense.”
If the ordinance passes, six retail permits would be allowed in unincorporated Clark County. Three businesses already hold licenses but have not opened storefronts. They would be allowed to begin sales, and another three permits would also become available.
Lentz said the Council sees this as an economic decision that could create business opportunities and bring in as much as $700,000 in annual revenue to the county’s general fund.
“We can choose to spend it on things that are currently underfunded,” she said.
The Council has been considering code changes to the local marijuana ordinance since a workshop session in April. The county planning commission recommends allowing retailers to stay open until 11 p.m. and prohibiting retail shops from opening outside of the Vancouver urban growth boundary.
Lentz said that decision was made to avoid saturating rural areas of the county and assured residents that, “Our rural areas are not going to see a pot shop on every corner.”
Jim Mullen, owner of The Herbery, runs three retail shops in Vancouver and is looking to open a fourth in Salmon Creek if the ban is lifted.
“We’re growing every year,” said Mullen, who wants a more convenient option for customers living in North Clark County. “Having a stake in the game is just the right decision.”
Clark County residents narrowly rejected marijuana legalization in 2012, by less than 1%. The more rural unincorporated areas have historically been less likely to embrace recreational cannabis. But with county growth and new residents moving in, some believe opinions on marijuana are beginning to loosen.
“The sky hasn't fallen — and frankly there’s revenue to be made,” said Vicki Chistophersen, executive director of the trade group Washington CannaBusiness Association. She said the cannabis industry is responsible for 10,000 jobs and $250 million in wages statewide. “I think folks are starting to understand that this is a legitimate, legal business and it's safe.”
Clark County Councilor Julie Olson believes her constituents' views on marijuana have evolved over time, including her own. Olson originally voted against legalization in 2012, but now supports lifting the county’s ban.
“I think the question to ask is what value is having the ban,” Olson said. “Does it still have an impact that matters?”
To Olson, the ban has outlived its purpose and no longer seems relevant to the community she represents.
“The county is growing, people are moving here and demographics are changing,” Olson said. “The stigma around marijuana is going away.”