State Attorney General says cities can ban pot sales

YAKIMA, Wash. -- A pivotal day in the law over growing and selling recreational marijuana. Voters in Washington overwhelming said they want legal pot. But, now the state's Attorney General says local governments don't have to listen to them.

The opinion boils down to two issues. Can local governments ban licensed pot shops despite the state law that allows them? The Attorney General says yes. And, can cities make it difficult for licensed pot businesses to open? That answer is also yes.

The opinion is clear. While state law will regulates the legal production and sale of recreational marijuana, cities can put their foot down.

That's something Yakima's leaders wanted to hear. They're ready to push through a ban of their own. Senior Assistant City Attorney Mark Kunkler says this interpretation helps.

"Having in hand the attorney general's opinion stating that at least in his opinion, that it's a lawful option."

It also puts up a potential roadblock to would-be sellers, growers and processors who might have thought about suing the city.

"It does give anyone who's seeking to challenge a ban pause, because it is the opinion of the agency, the legal authority of the state, interpreting the law," says Kunkler.

The ruling says any licenses issued for the varying pot businesses do not entitle their holders to operate regardless of local law. And, that the state law as written, leaves room for cities to make their own regulations.

It could also lead to a divided Yakima Valley. Cities like Mabton and Grandview are moving toward embracing legal pot. Almost every other government in Eastern Washington issued a moratorium, waiting to see how this plays out.

Yakima's been outspoken in rejecting the law, but could have others follow.

"Probably," says Yakima City Manager, Tony O'Rourke. "I think there were a lot of cities sitting on the fence."

Shelly Smith welcomes the Attorney General's opinion and supports Yakima's looming ban.

"We have enough problems in the city already. Why do we want to add something else to the problems we already have?"

Not everyone shares that view.

"Banning it would give more money to the drug dealers. And, they're just taking over our city already."

While this finding paves the way for cities to opt out of legal pot, it might also set the stage for more fights ahead.

The opinion from the attorney general is just that, an opinion. It's no final decision, but cities will use it as justification that they can ban pot and defend the position in court. And, state lawmakers are likely to weigh in as well. A proposal going through the legislature would force local governments to follow the will of the voters in I-502.