Washington judge upholds local pot business ban

by: Graham Johnson Updated:

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TACOMA, Wash. —

A Washington state judge says a small city can continue to ban licensed marijuana businesses, even if they're allowed under state law.

Pierce County Judge Ronald Culpepper issued the ruling Friday after extensive arguments in a case with big implications for Washington's experiment allowing recreational marijuana.

Tedd Wetherbee, who wanted to open a pot shop in the city of Fife sued over its ban on such businesses, saying voters intended to allow adequate access to marijuana to displace the black market.

But the judge said there isn't enough evidence that Fife's ban conflicts with the will of the voters.

After the court hearing, Wetherbee disagreed, referencing that 53 percent of Fife voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012.

"The people of the city of Fife said 'we wanted regulated, taxed marijuana' and they didn't get it today," Wetherbee said.

Wetherbee said he plans to appeal.

After the ruling, Fife's city attorney said his council was vindicated.

"My council, my client, represents the will of the voters in the city of Fife," said city attorney Loren Combs.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson weighed in on the case, saying I-502 allows cities to opt out of permitting marijuana businesses.

That, he says, actually preserves access to legal weed.

"If you want to uphold Initiative 502, you want to give local jurisdictions the ability to ban marijuana," Ferguson said.

While that might sounds strange,  the author of I-502 said if the law required all cities to allow marijuana businesses, it could set up a conflict with the federal governments, which considers pot illegal.

Marijuana supporters don't want to pick a fight with the feds - because if they lost - the whole state system could fall apart.

That's why they're relieved the judge did not formally tackle the question of whether federal law trumps the state's legal pot law.

I-502 chief sponsor Alison Holcomb said the ruling will not likely set a precedent for other cities.

That's because the state issued licenses by jurisdiction.

In this case, the jurisdiction was "Pierce County at large," rather than the city of Fife.

Holcomb thinks the outcome might have been different if the state had intended licenses specifically for Fife, which is too small to have had marijuana retail licenses set aside for it by the state.

"I don't think we're done with the question about whether local bans are allowed under Initiative 502," Holcomb said.