OKANOGAN A local association says marijuana could be a $240 million industry for Okanogan County – if city governments don’t stand in the way.
“There are people that are planning on doing both retail, production and processing, and Okanogan (County) should be one of the premier spots for the production,” Okanogan Cannabis Association President Jeremy Moburg said.
The state has allocated five retailers for the county – one could be based in Omak – and there’s no limit on the number of licenses that could be authorized to qualifying producers and processors.
Ferry County could have one retailer, and three have been earmarked for Douglas County.
Hopeful entrepreneurs can apply for state licenses during a 30-day window starting Nov. 18. If there are more applications than licenses for retailers, the state will conduct a lottery.
Moburg, also a consultant, said he knows of about a dozen interested people. He declined to identify them.
Meanwhile, the county is accepting public comments until Nov. 25 for a proposed amendment to the zoning code for marijuana operations. The code would require business owners to obtain a conditional-use permit valid in the “Minimum Requirement” or “Methow Review District” zones.
The Methow Review District comprises the Methow Valley from Carlton northward, with the exception of the area zoned as “supplemental maps” along the Methow River. The Minimum Requirement zone is the majority of the rest of the county, minus the Molson Overlay east of Lake Osoyoos and Oroville.
Senior Planner Ben Rough said applicants will have to prove state compliance before the county will consider a permit request.
For producers to be ready for the next season, Moburg said they’ll need their licenses by February.
“We have to follow an agricultural calendar,” he said. “There’s only one or two months off and certain entities will need to go year-round.”
The county could account for 10 percent to 20 percent of the state’s crop and could bring in jobs ranging from agricultural workers to security, fencing, irrigation, greenhouses, information technology and customer service, Moburg said.
“Who wants to say ‘no’ to this?” he said. “This is agriculture. Let’s support it.”
His estimate of $240 million is based on a scenario of growing 30 grams per square foot, at a cost of $2 per gram, under a 400,000-square-foot canopy.
The state estimated it could receive as much as $2 billion from sales taxes in the first five years.
Okanogan County Community Coalition Co-Director Andi Ervin, part of the group that helped Omak craft its ordinance prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries and collective gardens, said she hasn’t seen any specific evidence that marijuana will benefit the economy.
“How many jobs? What is the expected wage? There is no real answer to these questions, because this is an experiment,” she said. “Though there can be significant profits in marijuana sales, especially if the product is diverted to illegal markets, it is unclear what benefit the local economy will actually receive from marijuana production and/or processing.
“However, what we do know, from years of scientific research, is that youth (use) rates of a substance increases when it is readily available… Encouraging and fostering an unsecured and unenforceable local marijuana economy will only further increase youth access and exposure to marijuana.”
Moburg said he doesn’t think there’s anything to be afraid of.
“Prohibition’s over and I guess there’s going to be some hold-outs, but this is the way it’s going,” Moburg said.
His work through the Okanogan Cannabis Association helped prompt the Liquor Control Board to change an aspect of the new rules, adopted last month, that allow producers to cultivate marijuana outdoors.
“I’m concerned about the environmental impacts of that (indoor growing) and the energy usage of that,” Moburg said. “We lobbied for sun-growing and we got it…. It kind of changed the direction of 502.”
Crops would ideally be located on “traditional farmland” away from highly populated areas, he said.
“I steer my clients away from residences,” he said. “This is part of the self-policing that we’re doing.”
All producers must follow state regulations, which include restrictions on advertising, fencing around crops and video monitoring inside as well as 20 feet outside of the grow. All businesses have to be part of the state’s new traceability system.
“You have to track all of your inventory from the very beginning to the very end,” Moburg said. “This isn’t just some hippie in the hills who’s going to grow some pot and put a fence around it. These systems are going to be sophisticated to the degree that it’s required.”
However, Ervin said enforcement is still a concern because I-502 doesn’t include extra funding for local sheriff’s offices and police departments. The nearest enforcement officers are in Wenatchee, she said.
“While Liquor Control Board marijuana rules attempt to address security, rules will be followed only if they can be enforced,” she said, noting that the Liquor Control Board’s “own consultant said that without the cooperation of local law enforcement there will not be adequate enforcement.”
The Okanogan County Planning Commission will host a public hearing Nov. 25 on the proposed zoning change.
Written comments for the State Environmental Policy Act requirement of the proposal are due by 5 p.m. Nov. 13. Rough said an appeal period will follow.
“The county does not have jurisdiction to regulate land use within incorporated cities and towns,” he said. “The towns will produce, or have already produced, their own regulations/policies.”
Omak received one inquiry about opening a store – a man who gave a Wenatchee address, City Administrator Ralph Malone said.
He said he didn’t hear back from the man after explaining that “our businesses licenses required that the business being conducted be in compliance with all local, state and federal laws.”
Pateros Clerk/Treasurer Kerri Wilson said no one has asked about opening a business, and the City Council hasn’t taken action on the issue.
“We were advised by our city planner and city attorney that with our current zoning and with the city being surrounded by parks and school district, no one would meet the current law that states ‘marijuana business needs to be 1,000 feet away from a public school and city parks,’” Wilson said.
The situation is similar in Winthrop, where Mayor Dave Acheson said there is “very little” business zoning space available that would be suitable.
Bridgeport enacted a six-month moratorium last winter on the “processing, production and sale of medical and recreational marijuana,” then extended it for another six months in September.
Liquor Control Board Communications Director Brian Smith said the law doesn’t include a provision that “allows a community to opt out.
“We will issue a license if they (business applicants) meet our requirements,” he said. “However, they have to be compliant with local regs to operate. If someone is prohibited from acting on their license, that license holder can try to seek a legal remedy in order to operate.”
Moburg pointed out that the majority of state residents – 55.7 percent of voters – are in favor of I-502.
Okanogan County voters approved it at 51.4 percent, and 51.05 percent of Ferry County voters were in favor. Douglas County voted against the measure by a slim margin of 51 percent.
“We actually voted for it, and then we had citizens and our representatives really make it possible for the industry… and anything that’s going to make that harder is millions and millions of dollars that we’re not going to have, and jobs that aren’t going to be there,” Moburg said.