Academic, Uncategorized

Klickitat County marijuana debate: where does the support really lie?

By Shyanne Faulconer

Washington State map with Klickitat County highlighted in yellow.
Washington State map with Klickitat County highlighted in yellow.

Many residents of Klickitat County believe that the vote to pass or reject an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use was overwhelmingly in the direction of opposition.

“In this community, most people voted against Initiative 502 from the beginning,” Gail Schlosser, a resident of Goldendale, said. However, according to the results of Washington State Initiative 502, which approved the retail production, processing, and sale of recreational marijuana in Washington in 2012, in Klickitat County a miniscule majority voted against the initiative.

The results were almost completely equal, with 49.64 percent voting yes and 50.36 percent voting no. The number of people who voted totaled 10, 172, approximately half of the entire population of the county and 6,000 fewer than the number of people legally able to vote.

On Oct. 21, 2014, the county re-adopted a moratorium to halt the establishment of any new marijuana producers, processors, and retailers in the unincorporated areas of the county despite what was passed by Initiative 502. Klickitat County totals 1904 square miles and the incorporated city limits account for only four square miles of that area, so the area the moratorium affects is large; 1900 square miles to be exact.

The three incorporated cities of Klickitat County--Goldendale, Bingen, and White Salmon--are marked

According to the moratorium, as the Washington State Liquor Control Board continued to approve licenses to people in Klickitat County, the local concerns grew.

“All new facilities have been halted regardless of the license they have applied for,” Klickitat County commissioner and past chairman Jim Sizemore said in a personal interview.

The moratorium states that the county found an existing emergency that threatened the public peace, health, safety, and welfare and that the moratorium would allow the county to address those concerns. Some of the concerns addressed were fire hazard, the potential for ground water contamination by the production and processing facilities, and air quality concerns.

Sizemore said that, to date, the board of commissioners instructed the planning department to consider public safety concerns addressed in the ordinance. One potential option for the planning department to address the public concerns would be to change local zoning so that the marijuana facilities will not be located in “improper locations” such as residentially zoned areas, Sizemore said.

One concern is that the people of Goldendale were unaware of the intended purpose of some of the buildings purchased by marijuana producers and processors; the purchasers did not disclose their intended use of the buildings, and many people were upset when they found out that the buildings were purchased to be marijuana processing or producing facilities.

“I maintain to this day the Goldendale people had the wool pulled over their heads. It was done in a very hidden way so that it was too late to do anything about it,” Goldendale resident Darrell Smith said.

Smith, a retired prison minister and counselor, moved to Goldendale to retire with his wife approximately four years ago and firmly opposed the legalization of recreational marijuana. Because of his opposition, he has taken a leadership role in opposing the establishment of marijuana facilities in the county.

In reference to the widespread claim that legalization of the drug would decrease the black-market, Smith said, “Perhaps in a perfect world it would work like that, but in reality it simply makes it more common.”

Smith says that too many people in the community are waiting for someone else to act on the issue and that “disbelief caused them to freeze,” he said. He says that he became so entrenched in the issue because there were so many people who just froze, saying that he is “not a big fan of taxing vice to promote virtue.”

Other Klickitat County residents embrace the retail marijuana stores, perhaps none more than Margie Lemberger—retired pharmacist and owner of Margie’ s Pot Shop in Bingen. Lemberger chose to open a marijuana store because the climate for growing marijuana in Klickitat County is excellent and starting a personal business was her goal after retiring, she says.

Some definite hurdles to get over have included not being able to advertise as desired and not having enough growers when first opening to keep the shelves stocked, Lemberger says. However, the store now has multiple reliable growers and is able to advertise more effectively and with fewer restrictions.

Many growers were hesitant to supply a store that was surrounded by so much local controversy in Goldendale, but when Bingen openly embraced the shop growers were no longer hesitant, Lemberger said.

Bingen embraced the shop right from the beginning and it has been received very well, getting customers ranging “from lawyers to handymen,” Lemberger said. One thing she wishes that people knew was that her customers walk in “bright eyed and smiling” not staggering, and that the stereotype associated with marijuana use is wrong, Lemberger said.

Throughout Klickitat County, one town accepted the marijuana business with open arms; in the other, many people have fought to see to it that the marijuana industry does not expand further.

“As citizens we have to be more aware. It surprises me that the younger people don’t seem to be as concerned about it as the older people are,” Gail Schlosser said. Schlosser is one of many community members that believed an overwhelming majority of Klickitat County residents voted against I-502 in 2012, though the vote was marginal.

The county moratorium halts new licensees from starting business and also prevents businesses that are already operational from expanding existing stores and opening more branches.

Overall, the reactions of local residents to the establishment of marijuana producing, processing, and retail businesses along with the zoning of the locations the businesses have chosen has taken precedence, not the public health and safety concerns highlighted in the ordinance such as fire hazard, potential ground water contamination, and air quality concerns.

Commissioner Sizemore repeatedly addressed zoning and the planning department’s need for time to consider changing zoning so that marijuana facilities—even if located in areas zoned as commercial property—would not be near residential areas. Public health and safety concerns were not addressed unless in regards to zoning and business location.

Goldendale and Klickitat County are trying to solve a complex issue in ways that are too simple, Smith said. “There are some things that take more than a soundbite—you can’t explain economics in three seconds.” Simplicity in explanation is not always the best, and sometimes it takes really deep communication to solve things, Smith said.

At a public hearing on April 14, the Klickitat County planning commission reviewed the county regulations on zoning and worked to decide if amendments needed to be made in order to address the marijuana producer, processor, and retail uses. The planning commission said an extension would allow them time to complete the review and give recommendations to the commissioners.

After the hearing, the county commissioners could either take no action and let the moratorium end,

or extend the moratorium. They voted to extend the moratorium another six months. In the next six months, the planning commission and the county commissioners say that they will be working to address public concerns of zoning, though concerns of public health and safety within the moratorium were not mentioned.

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