Where there’s a will, there’s weed.
While the Enumclaw City Council in 2014 denied zoning to any marijuana producers, processors and retailers inside city limits, legal grow operations have spread out around the city in unincorporated King County, taking advantage of rural land just a few hundred feet away from the city line.
Currently, there are three legal and active marijuana producers and processors in the Enumclaw area that operate outside city boundaries. Another five licenses are currently being processed by the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Lorna Rufener and Barry Quam, the leaders of a 79-plus person group dedicated to banning marijuana businesses from unincorporated King County, claim these active and pending grows (as well as illegal operations) will significantly impact their lives as rural residents.
Rufener and Quam expressed their concerns in a letter sent to the King County Council, the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Liquor and Cannabis Board, state representatives and senators.
“Many cities have passed ordinances to keep production, processing and retail out of their city limits,” the Feb. 29 letter reads. “(I-502) was passed primarily by citizens who live in the cities and now we want to inflict the burden on our rural neighborhoods to produce their recreational marijuana? We believe we deserve better than that and have banded together in an effort to preserve our safety and keep our quality of life intact.”
The group has several concerns, the first being that legal producers, and illegal producers who fly under the radar of the King County Sheriff’s office, have brought crime to their once quiet neighborhood.
The group is also worried about funding cuts for the sheriff’s office (estimated at around $8 million during the next two years), which could severely impact response times to their area, as well as the lack of public notice for when a marijuana business attempts to get licensed to operate in a neighborhood.
Several Enumclaw residents addressed the King County Council about these concerns during a town hall meeting on public safety and the 2016 comprehensive plan April 6.
Increase in crime?
Although King County Sheriff John Urquhart said during the meeting that property crimes in general have decreased in southeast King County, Rufener and Quam said they’ve seen a rise in crime, especially property crime, in their small area.
According to King County Crime Analysis Unit, the neighborhood in which Rufener lives (roughly a two square mile area around 440th Street), experienced 33 burglaries between June 2014 and January 2016.
The neighborhood also reported 40 suspicious circumstances in that time period, and officers conducted 41 area checks.
Residents also experienced a shooting in late February, when one shotgun round was fired at a window.
The reason for these crimes, Rufener and Quam believe, are twofold: first, the legal and illegal marijuana production operations in the neighborhood have attracted a criminal element, and second, the sheriff’s department doesn’t have the resources to deal with these smaller illegal operations.
“We have three illegal marijuana grows on my street,” Rufener, a retired police captain, told the county council at the town hall. “This is a cash business… which has inherent risk to those producing, selling and residing by them.”
One of those grow operations turned out to be an unlicensed collective, allowed by state law since 1998. This grow, Rufener said during an interview March 15, was right next to her house. She knew it was a grow because the wind blew open her neighbor’s greenhouses, revealing several dozen 14-foot tall plants and allowing Rufener to take photos from the street.
Sgt. Cindi West of the sheriff’s media relations office confirmed there was a marijuana grow operation next to Rufener, but the sheriff’s report stated the grow was within legal parameters. West said also the grow was not in operation the last time the department checked. West could not confirm there were other illegal marijuana operations in the area.
Additionally, West was not able to confirm there has been an increase in crime in Rufener’s area, based on the crime analysis statistics.
“There does not seem to be any increase in crime because of anything related to marijuana,” West said during a phone interview April 7. “The neighborhood is doing a good job in watching for things, but we’re not seeing a significant increase.”
West also said that two people who were committing several property crimes in the area have been recently jailed or sentenced and crime has decreased since they were taken off the street.
At the town hall meeting, Rufener also said she’s concerned about how the sheriff’s office will deal with illegal grows, since the department is already stretched thin by budget cuts.
“We are aware that July 1, 2016, the Liquor and Cannabis Board will take jurisdiction over medical marijuana. However, they do not have police powers, and when they discover an illegal grow, they will refer it to local law enforcement,” Rufener said. “We have been told there are hundreds if not thousands of such illegal grows in our county…. They are totally unable to deal with this, from the sheriff’s office.”
Whether I-502 would affect crime rates was a major concern for the state and many Washingtonians when the initiative was being debated.
I-502 charged the Washington State Institute of Public Police to study the effect of the initiative on crime rates, but senior researcher Adam Darnell said it’s too early for the institute to have results.
“There aren’t any reports that I am aware of that have directly examined the cause and effects of I-502 on criminal justice outcomes yet,” Darnell said in a phone interview April 7.
Darnell said the institute’s report on I-502’s effect on crime rates will be made public in September 2017.
The Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area released a report on the consequences of marijuana legalization March 10.
Among many findings, the 142-page report finds that despite the legalization of marijuana, the black market is still thriving in the state, partly due to the unregulated medical marijuana industry and a demand for marijuana that is larger than what retail stores can meet.
“Data compiled in this report shows that the decision to legalize marijuana was not without harm,” said Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area’s Executive Director Dave Rodriguez in a press release. “Unfortunately, many of the reported outcomes show the exact opposite of the goals that sold the initiative to voters. We now see clearly that marijuana is increasingly hurting our youth, black market sales have not disappeared, the amount of crime due to marijuana has actually gone up and Washington has become a net exporter of cannabis to other states.”
The report detailed the increase of marijuana-related crime in Spokane Valley. In 2013, there was one assault and two thefts regarding marijuana. In 2015, there were eight assaults and 14 thefts related to marijuana, as well as an increase in possession, harassment and thefts relating to marijuana.
However the Seattle Police Department has seen a consistent drop in marijuana-related incidents from 2011 to 2013.
Part of the problem with tracking how crime rates are affected by marijuana businesses is there are currently three marijuana markets in the state, said Mikhail Carpenter, spokesman for the Liquor and Cannabis board: there’s the legal and licensed businesses, the unregulated medical collectives and the black market.
“It’s often hard to draw a direct conclusion, by virtue of marijuana, because you have to draw a direct line to where it was purchased,” Carpenter said.
Impacting a way of life
Aside from the alleged increase in crime rates, Rufener and Quam said that having licensed marijuana grows in rural residential areas greatly affects the aesthetic of unincorporated King County.
“There’s a proposed marijuana grow site two doors down from me, jammed right between two homes, with more houses on either side of the street and up and down the street,” Quam said during the town hall meeting. “We all wonder why on earth anybody would think it’s OK to put a commercial grow site in a residential area like ours…. We don’t want to be looking at 8-foot fences. We don’t want to be awake in the middle of the night because of pollution from security lights. We really don’t want to smell the noxious, obnoxious and offensive odors that these sites produce. We don’t want more traffic on our street, especially trucks. We don’t want our property values going in the tank…. But most importantly, think about our kids.”
There are many security requirements licensed marijuana producers must adhere to in order to stay in business, some of which can potentially alter a neighborhood’s aesthetic.
Any licensed marijuana grow must wire alarm systems to all perimeter doors and windows, along with a complete video surveillance system filming 24/7 every potential entrance, anywhere where marijuana is grown, all point-of-sale areas and more.
Outdoor grows have even more requirements that can affect an area’s aesthetic. They must be enclosed by a wall or fence 8-feet high and any gates or other entry points for an outdoor grow must be lighted in low-light conditions, although motion detection lighting systems are allowed.
But indoor marijuana grows can by much more inconspicuous, as employees of Pure Green Cross WA, a marijuana grow operating outside of Enumclaw, pointed out.
It’s likely that thousands of drivers have driven past Pure Green Cross WA, located on state Route 164, without knowing the building holds two marijuana grows, one employee said.
From the highway, the only indication there is marijuana in the area is the smell, and close up, visitors can see numerous cameras filming every entrance to the lot and the building.
“There’s no possible way we can be affecting people,” said master grower Keiton Shannon-Garbey. “I couldn’t imagine there being a real argument for not having marijuana out here.”
Pure Green Cross WA does not have homes close to its building.
Current moratorium, zoning and ban options
King County has a moratorium on marijuana, but only for collective marijuana gardens and unlicensed dispensaries.
What the moratorium does, according to county Product Line Manager Ty Peterson, is keep unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries from opening until July 1, when the Liquor and Cannabis Board’s new state rules for marijuana come into effect. When that happens, all medical marijuana dispensaries must be licensed and all collectives must be registered as marijuana cooperatives with the LCB.
This moratorium does not affect licensed marijuana businesses.
In King County, marijuana production is allowed in the widest range of zoning districts, Peterson said, but there are various restrictions.
“You have to have a minimum 4.5 acre parcel, (and) you’re not allowed to build any new buildings except for something the county calls a marijuana green house,” Peterson said.
State law does not define marijuana as an agricultural product, so the laws surrounding marijuana greenhouses are different than agricultural greenhouses.
There are few other obstacles for marijuana producers wanting to set up shop in unincorporated King County.
Peterson said no one is allowed to have more than 2,200 square feet of total marijuana production area without a conditional use permit.
Being approved for a conditional use permit, Peterson said, can take up to a year and can cost upward of $15,000, but would allow a marijuana producer to grow up to 30,000 square feet of marijuana.
There are also a couple of setback rules; grow operations must be set back 50 feet from the road and 30 feet from other property lines.
Rufener and Quam believe these zoning regulations and land use restrictions are not tight enough, but something that greatly concerns them is that some grows may not receive any county oversight and the county is not required to give notice of a proposed marijuana grow less than 2,200 square feet large.
“If you weren’t building anything, no greenhouse, there would be nothing for us to issue a permit on,” Peterson said. “In some instances, (growers) have an area to grow that’s been approved by the Liquor and Cannabis Board and they didn’t construct anything that requires a permit, so we didn’t see anything or issue any permits for it.”
The county and the LCB only need to alert the public of a marijuana grow if the producer applies for a conditional use permit.
It’s for these reasons that Rufener and Quam would like the county to enact a moratorium to keep marijuana businesses from operating in unincorporated King County, especially those that would operate in rural neighborhoods. Rufener and Quam would also like the county to tighten its rules for alerting residents about potential grows in their area.
A moratorium or ban on marijuana businesses in rural areas is not unheard of. Pierce County does not allow marijuana businesses to operate in rural zones, except in Gig Harbor and on the Key Peninsula. These communities asked the Pierce County Council to allow the medical dispensaries in their areas to continue to operate after July 1, when the new rule changes take effect.