Oroville keeps moratorium on pot dispensaries, co-op grows

OROVILLE – The state might say it’s legal, but as far as the feds are concerned marijuana, medical or otherwise, is still verboten.

It was that concern and a wait-and-see attitude about how other Washington cities will handle the issue that led to Oroville’s moratorium on cooperative medical marijuana grows and dispensaries within the city limits. During a required public hearing on the issue at their Tuesday, March 20 meeting, the council reaffirmed the moratorium first invoked in January.

Chris Branch, Director of Community Development, told the council the permitting of medical marijuana dispensaries and cooperative grows within the city is a matter of zoning (under the land use statute about the establishment of businesses) and thus the city has the right to place a six-month moratorium. The moratorium can be extended indefinitely by the city as long as they have a public hearing within 60 days of a new extension, according to Branch. However, according to the planner, the courts frown on “rolling moratoriums” that get extended indefinitely.

“Recent developments and findings by the Oroville Police and Planning departments and the recommendation of the city attorney is to not allow because his stance is the federal government still finds marijuana illegal,” said Oroville Police Chief Clay Warnstaff.

Warnstaff said the City of Shoreline has taken another tack and in January adopted an ordinance with fees about where dispensaries and grows can be located.

“There is also a December 2011 letter from the Clark County Commissioners to Eric Holder. The U.S. Attorney General advises that it is still illegal, regardless of what the state says,” Warnstaff said. “This letter is pretty straight forward. We heard the federal government may look the other way when it comes to the states that passed medical marijuana laws… this letter says nothing to that.”

City Clerk Kathy Jones repeated her concern that if Oroville were to allow medical marijuana dispensaries and cooperative grows it might hurt the town’s chances when applying for federal grants.

Warnstaff said areas that have allowed this kind of use have seen increases in criminal activities, home invasions, robberies and thefts.

“Has there been any inquiry about starting such a business?” asked Councilman Walt Hart III, who was serving as mayor pro tem that evening.

“I haven’t received any phone calls and I was the point-of-contact when we advertised the public hearing,” said Branch. “Someone who might want to operate such a business might not be willing to come forward at this time because the law is still in a state of flux.”

Debra Donoghue, Oroville Ambulance Coordinator, asked, “If the federal government were to allow could you disallow them (dispensaries and cooperative grows)?”

“Not as the state law is written now… we can say where they can’t have them,” Branch said, comparing the issue to the sexually-oriented businesses ordinance the city tackled a couple years back.

In the case of sexually-oriented businesses it is even harder to disallow because it may go against federal law on constitutional grounds, according to Branch.

The moratorium will remain in place for up to six months and the city may choose to readdress the issue at a future time. The ruling does not affect people with medical marijuana cards or their caregivers who grow marijuana as outlined under state law.