(Adds details on opinion, reaction)
By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Wash. Jan 16 Cities in Washington
state may still opt to ban or regulate marijuana businesses
within their boundaries despite a voter-approved state law
legalizing recreational pot, the state attorney general said on
Washington state and Colorado became the first U.S. states
to legalize recreational marijuana following voter referendums
in 2012, capitalizing on rapidly changing public opinion about
the drug, which remains illegal under federal law.
But in a move that at least one regulator said could
complicate efforts to root out a black market for marijuana,
state Attorney General Robert Ferguson said in a formal opinion
that the law did not require counties, cities or towns to allow
marijuana businesses to operate locally.
The opinion marked an early victory for at least three local
governments that have enacted bans on pot businesses within
their borders, including Pierce County, south of Seattle.
More than 20 others have moratoriums in effect to keep such
businesses from opening, at least temporarily, according to the
Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.
The opinion came in response to a request for clarification
from the state's three-member Liquor Control Board, the main
regulator of its nascent recreational pot industry.
In a conference call with reporters, Ferguson said the
ballot measure that Washington state voters passed to legalize
recreational-use marijuana contains no language precluding local
governments from banning pot businesses.
"If the drafters of the initiative wanted to preempt local
authority to ban or regulate marijuana businesses, they could
have done so. They did not," said Ferguson, a Democrat. "It is
not my role to read language into the initiative that is not
HEADED FOR COURTS?
Acknowledging that his opinion would likely not be the last
word on the subject, Ferguson said he "would not be surprised"
to see the issue resolved in the courts. Unlike Washington
state, Colorado's pot law clearly allows local governments to
ban recreational marijuana businesses within their borders.
Alison Holcomb, a Seattle-based attorney with the American
Civil Liberties Union who was the main author of the initiative,
sharply disagreed with Ferguson's analysis, saying the authority
given to the Liquor Control Board to issue pot business licenses
- and to act to limit the black market - made a ban on local
"We didn't think we needed to be redundant," Holcomb said.
Steve Smith, city attorney for the central Washington state city
of Wenatchee, which has moved to prohibit marijuana businesses
on the grounds that they are illegal under federal law,
characterized Ferguson's opinion as "comforting."
"The attorney general's opinion is not law, but it does give
us more direction and comfort that our position is supportable,"
Chris Marr, who sits on the Liquor Control Board, said
Ferguson's opinion was both surprising and disappointing, adding
that the board has not decided whether it will issue licenses to
prospective businesses where local bans exist in light of the
attorney general's opinion.
Marr added that the opinion's effect could be to make it
easier for the black market for marijuana to maintain a foothold
in areas of the state where there is no legal alternative.
"In those areas you've pretty much handed it over entirely
to the illicit market," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)