Legal pot on a roll, but some communities say no

Kirk JohnsonThe New York Times
Brennan Linsley

YAKIMA, Wash. -- The momentum toward legalized marijuana might seem like an inevitable tide, with states from Florida to New York considering easing laws for medical use, and a full-blown recreational industry rapidly emerging in Colorado and here in Washington state.

But across the country, resistance to legal marijuana is also rising, with an increasing number of towns and counties moving to ban legal sales. The efforts, still largely local, have been fueled by the opening, or imminent opening, of retail marijuana stores here and in Colorado, as well as by recent legal opinions that have supported such bans in some states.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues from marijuana sales -- promised by legalization's supporters and now eagerly anticipated by state governments -- that could be sharply reduced if local efforts to ban such sales expand.

But the fight also signals a larger battle over the future of legal marijuana: whether it will be a national industry providing near-universal access, or a patchwork system with isolated islands of mainly urban sales.

To some partisans, the debate has echoes to the post-Prohibition era, when so-called dry towns emerged in some states in response to legalized alcohol. "At some point we have to put some boundaries," said Rosetta Horne, a nondenominational Christian church minister here in Yakima, at a public hearing on Tuesday night where she urged the City Council to enact a permanent ban on marijuana businesses.

Though it seems strongest in more rural and conservative communities, the resistance has been surprisingly bipartisan. In states from Louisiana to Indiana that are discussing decriminalizing marijuana, Republican opponents of relaxing the drug laws are finding themselves loosely allied with Democratic skeptics.

Voices in the Obama administration concerned about growing access have joined anti-drug crusaders like Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democratic former U.S. representative from Rhode Island, who contends that the potential health risks of marijuana have not been adequately explored, especially for juveniles -- and who has written and spoken widely about his own struggles with alcohol and prescription drugs.

"In some ways I think the best thing that could have happened to the anti-legalization movement was legalization, because I think it shows people the ugly side," said Kevin A. Sabet, a former drug policy adviser to President Barack Obama and the executive director and a founder with Kennedy of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. The group, founded last year, supports removing criminal penalties for using marijuana, but opposes full legalization, and is working with local organizations around the nation to challenge legalization.

"If legalization advocates just took a little bit more time and were not so obsessed with doing this at a thousand miles per hour," he added, "it might be better. Instead, they are helping precipitate a backlash."

In Washington, the Yakima County Commission has already said that it plans to ban marijuana businesses in the unincorporated areas outside Yakima city. Clark County, Washington, is considering a ban on recreational sales that would affect the huge marijuana market in Portland, Ore., just across the Columbia River. And the state's second most populous county, Pierce, just south of Seattle, said last month it would bar recreational businesses from opening.

(Here in Yakima, an agricultural city of wine and apples, population 93,000, each side in Tuesday's often emotional two-hour council meeting talked about risk. Proponents of the ban said they feared that neighborhoods and cherished patterns of life would be harmed by recreational marijuana businesses. Opponents, including some marijuana business license applicants, warned of economic harm and legal liability if the ban passed.

By the evening's end, the vote was not close -- 6-1 for a complete prohibition of marijuana businesses.

Yakima's course, council members said, was bolstered by the state's attorney general, Bob Ferguson, who this month issued a nonbinding legal opinion that local governments could ban recreational marijuana under I-502, the initiative legalizing recreational marijuana that Washington voters approved in 2012. Critics said Ferguson's reasoning flew against the intent of the law, which says that marijuana must be available to all state residents.

But even before his opinion, resistance was growing. Across Washington, local moratoriums or bans covering more than 1.5 million people -- about 1 in 5 residents -- were in place by mid-January, according to a pro-legalization research group in Seattle, the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy.

On a broader level, some legal experts say the emerging opposition to legal marijuana could lead to legal challenges that strike at the heart of the legalization laws in Colorado and Washington -- or affirm them.

A deeper engine driving opposition to legal marijuana is anxiety about the ways that the rapid expansion of marijuana shops and increasingly easy access to the drug might change communities. None of the new local bans affect possession of marijuana for personal use, which is legal statewide in Washington.

"This is not about the adult being able to smoke a joint," said Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "It's about widespread access, it's about changing the landscape of a neighborhood, it's about widespread promotion and advertising, and it's about youth access."

Supporters of legalization say that because voters statewide approved a system guaranteeing adults access to legal marijuana, they will push state regulators and lawmakers to meet that mandate, possibly by pushing for penalties against local governments that enact bans.

But Dave Ettl, a Yakima City Council member who voted for the ban, said he was willing to risk penalties, saying he considered the promised tax revenues from marijuana sales tainted.

"There's some money that's not worth getting," he said.

The New York Times