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AG Ferguson: Local governments can deny pot licenses

The state attorney general says cities and counties have the legal power to deny a license for a marijuana business.

Initiative-502, approved by voters, is silent on the power of local jurisdictions to deny a business license, according to Bob Ferguson in an opinion issued Thursday.

Some local jurisdictions, including the city of Lakewood and unincorporated Pierce County, have banned marijuana business.

“Initiative-502 included no clear indication that it intended to preempt local ordinances banning marijuana producers, processors, and retailers,” said Ferguson during a conference call with reporters.

“That was a mistake,” said Rep. David Sawyer, a Democrat from Pierce County. He’s introduced a bill to penalize local jurisdictions that refuse to issue licenses for marijuana businesses.

“It was never intended by anybody who voted for this, they never thought that their local government would obstruct the will of the voters,” said Sawyer. “That’s what they’re doing and that’s what we’re going to fix.”

His bill would deny liquor revenues to jurisdictions that don’t license marijuana businesses.

The opinion of the state attorney general was requested by the chair of the Washington Liquor Control Board, which has been concerned that such local bans could restrict access to legal marijuana and make it difficult to move people away from the black market.

Nearly three dozen of the state’s 75 biggest cities, from Redmond to Pullman, have adopted moratoriums of up to a year on marijuana businesses.

Ferguson told reporters he would not be surprised if the issue is resolved in court, possibly by the state Supreme Court.

In a written statement, Washington state liquor board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said the opinion would be a disappointment to the majority of voters who approved the law.

“If some local governments impose bans it will impact public safety by allowing the current illicit market to continue,” she said. “It will also reduce the state’s expectations for revenue generated from the legal system we are putting in place.”

Lawmakers are already working on a couple of approaches for boosting access to legal pot.

Under one bill introduced in Olympia, cities could lose out on their share of liquor-license revenue if they don’t play ball with pot businesses. Another measure attempts to lure those cities into allowing the establishments by promising them a slice of excise taxes on marijuana sales.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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