City prepared to treat legal marijuana like liquor

The Renton City Council appears poised to treat marijuana and marijuana businesses the same way it treats liquor sales.

The council coalesced around the suggestion rather quickly during Monday's Committee of the Whole meeting, which featured an update on marijuana regulations from city attorney Larry Warren.

"I don't see why we have to treat it any differently than liquor," said Councilman Rich Zwicker.

"I tend to agree," added council President Randy Corman.

Voters last fall passed Initiative 502, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Washington. Since passage, many cities, including Renton, have been struggling with how to treat marijuana and marijuana-related business since the drug remains illegal federally.

"It's chaos," Warren said at the beginning of his briefing, adding, "This is out of our weight class."

Warren also drew the distinction between the medical marijuana industry, which is highly regulated throughout the state, and the coming recreational marijuana industry.

On the recreational side, Warren said the council had to begin discussions now so when rules from the Washington state Liquor Control Board go into effect in September, the city will have policies in place.

Warren said an online resource for city attorneys has been jammed with discussion on the topic for the past year.

There are three primary ways to deal with the industry, according to Warren: a moratorium, zoning or to do nothing and wait.

Originally, the recommendation was toward a moratorium, but Warren said without a schedule on how and when they would deal with the issue, a moratorium may not hold up in court.

It was as he began to talk about the zoning option – including the differences in growing, processing and retail – that Zwicker made his suggestion to simply handle the drug the same way the city handled liquor sales, since stores would be licensed through the same state authority anyway.

Warren called that approach "easy."

"There's no need to make it unduly complicated if you decide it's just another agricultural and retail business," he said.

Councilman Don Persson called it a "reasonable approach," though he said he would like the council to at least consider a smoking ban in parks, not just on marijuana but on everything.

There were some questions about complaints and how the police department would handle them, but Chief Kevin Milosevich said any complaints about marijuana usage or smells – aside from those involving teens, for whom it is still illegal – would most likely be referred to the Liquor Control Board, which will be handling the licensing and regulating of businesses.

"The easy answer is 'the public has spoken,'" Milosevich said.

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