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Decision on pot ban put on hold

The Sunnyside City Council voted unanimously to postpone its decision on whether or not to allow a retail marijuana store in the city after listening to passionate testimony by members of the public during a hearing last night.

A total of 31 people spoke either in favor or against the proposal presented by the city’s planning commission that would allow a retail store in the city. Of the speakers, 19 were against the proposal.

The planning commission’s proposal would limit a retail location to general commercial or light industrial zones in the city that are more than 1,000 feet from schools, playgrounds, recreation centers, child care centers, public parks, transit centers, libraries, game arcades, churches or residential zoned properties.

Those speaking at last night’s meeting were limited to three minutes each, and most speakers were able to stay within that limit.

Cathy Kelley, who has been an outspoken opponent of marijuana use among youth, told the council that it has been placed in a challenging position by the voters of Washington state.

“You are asked to make a decision on a matter for which the outcome is unknown, although, based on history, somewhat predictable,” she said. “You have much to consider.”

She asked the council to set aside personal views on the issue and research it before making an informed decision. She asked the council what value there is in having a retail outlet in Sunnyside, and asked if the value outweighs the potential risks.

She also said she understands that people are polarized on the issue, but asked the council not to let it polarize the community. She asked that, no matter what decision the council makes, we work as a community to keep marijuana out of the hands of children.

She then offered suggestions for the council if a retail store is allowed in the city, including limiting the hours the store could be open, regulating the name of the store so it does not glamorize use of the drug, required compliance checks and potential regulation of the THC content of the product sold.

Speaking in favor of a retail store was Dave Rand, a potential store owner, who argued that studies on marijuana have been cherry-picked to support a particular view. He also said that bringing the trade of marijuana into the open would help prevent it from falling into children’s hands.

More than one person who favors a retail store noted that the state rules on such stores are very strict, while illegal dealers never ask for identification.

Several of those speaking in favor of a store were from various out-of-town organizations that support marijuana use. The possibility of a lawsuit against the city if a retail store is banned was brought up more than once by both supporters of a store and those opposed to one.

Many of those opposed to the store urged the council to think of the message they are sending to the children of the town if a store is approved. Others noted how the city has only just emerged from a difficult time fighting gangs, and asked if the city needs a reputation as a place to get drugs.

After the public had spoken, council members gave their thoughts on the subject. Councilman Craig Hicks said that he does not believe a retail store will bring sales into the open.

“I don’t see how a store would stop the illegal sales,” he said. “They’re already doing illegal sales, so they lose some of the adult market, but they’ll target more to the children then. The sales are there. They are going to still make money off it.”

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock noted that the problem is already here and the city is going to have to deal with it.

“The ship has sailed,” she said. “I’ve heard impassioned people from both sides about the dangers and the good of marijuana.”

She said the drug is already in the city whether people like it or not, no matter how citizens on this side of the mountains voted on Initiative 502.

“Now our decision is, is there a way to deglamorize it, put it in a place where it doesn’t hurt the children and maybe make a dent in the black market or ban it outright,” she said. “The sales and the actual amount of marijuana in Sunnyside is not going to go down in that scenario. We’ve got a tough decision to make.

“It is clear, to me, whichever answer we come up with as far as retail sales, that what we’re doing now is not working,” she continued. “You look at the school statistics and 70 to 80 percent of our kids have it available to them at any time. We need to change that on a molecular level. We need our children not to be smoking marijuana.”

Councilman Dean Broersma argued that allowing a retail store will not solve any of the city’s problems. He said the illegal dealers will still be here and targeting children.

He also said the store will not provide the city with a significant amount of tax money.

And finally he noted that Sunnyside municipal code already states that all businesses must conform to federal, state and local laws. He argued that the council would be breaking city law by allowing a retail store.

Councilman Spencer Martin said he needed time to sort through the arguments that have been presented before making a decision. Mayor Jim Restucci agreed with him. The hearing was closed after just more than an hour and a half of discussion and the council voted to postpone the decision indefinitely.

The city currently has a 12-month moratorium in place on allowing marijuana ventures of any type that will expire on Aug. 11, 2014.

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