Clark County Council doesn’t change stance on legal pot
No member of the Clark County Council signaled that they had a change of heart regarding the county’s restrictions on pot following a nearly 2 1/2 -hour special work session on cannabis Wednesday evening.
The wide-ranging work session was the second the council has held on the topic this year as the county has considered lifting its ban on recreational businesses it’s had in place since recreational sales were legalized in Washington.
In recent months, the county has begun rethinking its position after recreational pot shops have sprung up in Vancouver and Battle Ground and Oregon legalized the drug in 2014.
Republican Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Eileen Quiring have remained steadfastly opposed to lifting the county’s restrictions. Councilors John Blom and Julie Olson (also Republicans) have expressed some interest in lifting the ban. Council Chair Marc Boldt, no party preference, had previously been open to lifting the ban but later reversed his position.
The topic has become an issue in this year’s council elections. But at the conclusion of the work session, no councilor indicated their position had shifted.
The work session did provide insights into the legal, regulatory, financial and social effects of legal marijuana in Clark County. Here are a few of them:
One of the stated reasons for having the work session was so the council could hear from representatives of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. According to board numbers, there are four holders of retailer licenses in Clark County and nine producer/processor licenses.
Joanna Eide, policy rules coordinator for the board, described the rigorous background checks people had to pass to get a license or process cannabis. She noted that because the drug is illegal on the federal level, the industry has limited access to banks and operates almost entirely in cash. Both Stewart and Quiring asked questions regarding how the state has kept marijuana from being sold on the black market and how it could account for the cash in the industry.
Eide responded that the state has strenuous controls that track businesses’ sales and marijuana at every point in the supply chain. Jim Mullen, CEO of The Herbery (which has three locations in Vancouver), confirmed to the council that his business is highly regulated.
“The expectation for inventory compliance is 100 percent 100 percent of the time,” he said.
He said that many marijuana entrepreneurs risk their 401(k) savings on investing in the business and take care to make sure their licenses aren’t jeopardized by falling out of compliance. He said he shares the goal of keeping pot from being accessed by youth or being diverted to the black market. He added that convenience of legal pot stores that offer products tested for pesticides reduces the reach of the black market.
Mullen, who is also board president of the Washington CannaBusiness Association, said that he has 52 full-time employees who receive full medical and dental coverage.
“Cannabis is here in Clark County,” said Christy Stanley, who owns three recreational stores and is running for council chair. “You all will just have to decide if you want it here illegally or not.”
The council also heard from Sgt. Bill Sofianos, supervisor of the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force, on how legal marijuana has impacted law enforcement. Sofianos presented dispatch data on calls for service going back two years that found that marijuana stores had higher calls for service than surrounding businesses.
For instance, Main Street Marijuana had 128 calls for service while a nearby tattoo parlor had two calls during this time period. Many calls for service to these stores involved unwanted individuals harassing customers or burglary.
He also said that since 2015, the task force has received 160 citizen complaints regarding marijuana possession, odor, manufacturing and distribution throughout Clark County.
“We rarely, if ever, get the phone calls saying, ‘I’m really glad my neighbors are smoking marijuana,’ ” he said.
Sofianos also cited a study from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission that found that while it’s “unknown what role marijuana alone plays in fatal crash risk, it is clear that marijuana mixed with other substances, most commonly alcohol, is contributing to fatal crashes in Washington State.”
The council also heard from Emily Sheldrick, chief civil deputy prosecutor, who noted that the U.S. Department of Justice under President Donald Trump has given federal prosecutors more leeway in bringing charges against recreational marijuana businesses. However, she said federal prosecutors have not brought charges against anyone in Clark County related to licensed retail marijuana or manufacturing operations.
According to Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board numbers, Vancouver and Battle Ground generated $53.8 million and $2.5 million in sales, respectively, for fiscal year 2018. The two jurisdictions saw a tax distribution of $498,420 and $37,333, respectively. However, Clark County receives none of this distribution because of its ban.
Mark Gassaway, county finance director, presented an estimate of how much money Clark County was losing based on population and proportional sales. He said the county lost between $575,000 and $625,000 in revenue for 2018. He said in 2020 the distribution will increase by 25 percent, which he said would put Clark County in the range of $725,000 to $750,000.
Public Health Director and Clark County Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick presented data from the Healthy Youth Survey, which is administered by the state Department of Health.
He said the numbers show that after retail marijuana became available, risk to youth has not increased. He also pointed to numbers showing that 10th-graders said marijuana has been harder to get since legalization.
“The bottom line is youth use has not gone up in Clark County or in Washington state since retail marijuana became viable,” he said.
The council also heard from Dr. Phillip Drum, a pharmacist from California who wore his white lab coat while presenting. In a packed presentation, he laid out wide-ranging evidence of the harmful effects of pot seeming to link it to crime, mortality, rising homelessness in Colorado and the diminishing life expectancy nationally.