Things got a little testy yesterday during the council’s planning, land use, and sustainability (PLUS) committee meeting, where council members discussed amending city land use law to allow marijuana retailers and producers to open up shop in more parts of Seattle to accommodate a flurry of new recreational marijuana store slated to be approved by the liquor control board.
The legislation, originally proposed by mayor Ed Murray back in November, would alter city land use regulations and reduce the mandated “buffer” distance between marijuana producers, processors, and retailers, and public amenities such as public libraries, parks, and transit centers to 500 feet, down from the current minimum of 1,000 feet (the current 1000 foot buffer for schools and playgrounds would remain, however). This would open up an additional 1,650 acres of land in the city for use marijuana operations, bringing the total up to 6,800 acres from the original 5,150. In a safeguard, the ordinance would enforce dispersion of new retail marijuana shops, requiring a new minimum distance between stores of 500 feet, to avoid clustering of pot shops.
“This proposal balances both the goals of giving retail owners a little more flexibility in where they can operate and creates new rules to require equitable distribution of stores throughout Seattle,” Murray said when the legislation was first rolled out.
The changes come in the wake of reforms to state marijuana law passed by the legislature during the last legislative session, which, among the big ticket item of folding the medical marijuana market into the new recreational system, included the easing buffer zoning restrictions that came with I-502, Washington’s landmark marijuana legalization initiative that passed in 2012 (local governments can now bring them down to 100 feet). Previously, these buffer restrictions had pigeonholed recreational marijuana stores (Seattle currently has 19 licensed and operational shops) into areas such as Aurora Avenue, 23rd in the Central District, Sodo, and Georgetown. Easing the buffer zones would allow for shops to potentially locate in new areas like Belltown, South Lake Union, and Belltown, as well as some land along Rainier Avenue in southeast Seattle. And with the liquor control board currently reviewing roughly 200 applications for marijuana retail licenses in Seattle (according to the Mayor's Office), Mayor Murray, the city, and some marijuana industry advocates argue that Seattle needs to open up more of Seattle to pot shops in order to cultivate the regulated, legal market brought in by I-502.
"The main need and urgency for that is to allow good operators and good businesses to box out the illicit market," said Alex Cooley—co-founder of Solstice Cannabis Growers—during public comment.
Another speaker, Logan Bowers, owner of Hashtag Recreational Cannabis, who supported liberalizing licensing restrictions, had some criticisms of the Mayor's proposed dispersion policy, arguing that it would allow early-applicant stores to acquire real estate and box their competition out of neighborhoods. "One or two shops can easily deny a whole neighborhood to any other competition."
There were a couple of amendments to the Mayor’s proposed on the table yesterday, one from council member Nick Licata to reduce buffer zones even further than Murray would, to 250 feet. Licata argued that the city needs to “create as many opportunities as reasonable” for legal marijuana producers and retailers. Licata's pro-expansion view was countered by an amendment from council member Bruce Harrell, who was fiercely opposed to easing the buffer restrictions at all. Harrell argued the committee hadn't had enough time to get input from the neighborhoods where new retail shops could potentially open. Particularly, he said that reduced buffer zones may concentrate stores in southeast Seattle and communities of color across the city.
“[We are] changing the fabric and the DNA of our city and these neighborhoods by making this policy decision in the 11th hour here this year,” said Harrell. “I would suggest that we first of all, go to the neighborhoods and have their input. These are not necessarily NIMBY people, these are people that are concerned about the impacts that we just don't know because this is unprecedented.”
“It's irresponsible because we just don't know the effects it's going to have on communities of color, we don't know the effects it's going to have on neighborhoods, and we certainly don't know whether it's going to erode the black market,” he added. (The legal pot shop at 23rd and Union in Seattle's central district, for example, has been a flash point over gentrification with the African American community rattled by the glaring irony that a community once targeted in the drug war is now home to a white business that sells pot in the center of neighborhood. A nearby church tried to prevent the shop, Ike's, from opening, but lost in court. Unfortunately, separate from the court battle, a gross dose of antisemitism crept into the debate over Ike's.)
David Mendoza, a Murray policy advisor, tried to alleviate Harrell’s concerns at yesterday's meeting. It didn't go well.
“I would offer that without lowering the buffer zones there's certain neighborhoods where these stores would cluster in,” he said, referring to side by side maps of land available for marijuana operations with the 1,000 foot buffer, Murray’s proposed 500 feet, and Licata’s 250, showcasing the current concentrations of recreational marijuana stores. “That region [southeast Seattle] would have more stores than other parts of the [city].”
Mendoza also noted that the issue is time sensitive because the liquor control board is currently reviewing applications, and the sooner the council passes the mayor’s legislation, marijuana producer and retailer applicants will have more time to choose from the newly expanded offerings of available city land. “The liquor control board is issuing licenses as we speak. If we put off the passage of this legislation, there is almost no point in passing it because these stores will be in place under the current rules.” (Mendoza added that the city anticipates 30 to 40 processed and approved applicants in Seattle by January or February.)
The meeting became terse as Harrell held his ground. “I know from history that, if you want to tear up a neighborhood and put liquor stores and check cashing places on every corner, that's what'll happen [deterioration]. And then you stick a marijuana place in there and you could see the deterioration,” said Harrell.
"Can we agree that historically, how the city has enforced drug laws, it's had a disparate impact on poor people and people of color," Harrell asked Mendoza before inquiring as to whether or not the city had conducted a racial impact assessment of the Mayor’s proposal. Mendoza replied by saying "yes" to the former and reiterating the goal of lowering the buffer zone—to “reduce the impact on neighborhoods of color."
“I hear your opinion. My question is not about your opinion. My question was have we done that kind of assessment,” Harrell continued.
“That is our assessment,” Mendoza said curtly, later acknowledging that the city has heard from communities on 23rd Avenue, 15th avenue, and along Rainier Avenue, as well as Reverend Reggie Witherspoon (a pastor at Mount Calvary Christian Center in the Central District), all of whom oppose lowering the buffer zones.
“It's balancing the interests of folks not wanting the businesses in their neighborhoods,” he said, referring to the 500 foot retail store dispersion requirements proposed by the Mayor. “But unfortunately if we do not reduce the buffer zones they [new stores] will be in their neighborhoods.”
Council newbie and former civil rights attorney Lorena Gonzalez, who pledged on the campaign trail to always run policy through a social equity lens, stepped in to challenge Harrell, highlighting that the current 1,000 foot buffer zones concentrate useable land in South Park and Georgetown, and that those areas are home to many communities of color too.
Council member Mike O’Brien (and PLUS committee chair) corralled the committee back on course, calling for a vote on Licata's pro-expansion amendment. Harrell voted no, while council members Jean Godden and Licata voted yes. The rest abstained, shooting the amendment down.
Next up was one more amendment from Licata to alter the Mayor’s 500 foot dispersion rule to allow for two retail stores to open up next to one another, but require a further, 700 foot distance for a third store (pre-existing licensed retailers would be grandfathered in). Again, Harrell voted no with the rest of the committee voting yes, approving the amendment.
The committee eventually passed the legislation, with Murray's change from 1,000 foot buffer zones to 500 foot zones and Licata's amendment about dispersion for third stores, in addition to another which designates the legislation as a "emergency ordinance" and allows it to go into effect once the Mayor has signed it. The package will go to full council early next year.