Dear Dispensaries: How to Beat a Marijuana Ban

Photo by Justin Cannabis

There are no marijuana dispensaries allowed in Fife, Washington, a city of under 10,000 people south of Seattle. Like many other small towns across Washington state, Oregon and California, Fife has a moratorium on the books banning recreational cannabis retail stores—except for the one going to open up in an old cigar bar in the center of town, run by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

That one’s on tribal land, and the local city council’s rules don’t apply. So there are no dispensaries allowed in actual, Fife-governed Fife—except for the other one, across the street from the tribal dispensary. That one, slated to open in March, is owned by a deep-pocketed marijuana entrepreneur who sued the city over its cannabis ban—and won the right to ignore it and open up a dispensary, in exchange for dropping the lawsuit challenging the ban.

Yes, other than those two dispensaries, marijuana retail stores are absolutely banned in Fife, Washington.

The local News-Tribune has been covering Fife’s thwarted attempts to thwart commercial cannabis sales within city limits. It’s a lesson in futility as much as it is a primer on land use.

There was nothing the city could do about the tribe’s decision to add a cannabis store to a portfolio that already included a casino, a hotel and two gas stations. As for choosing to let cannabis entrepreneur Tedd Wetherbee—who already runs marijuana outlets in two other cities—open up a dispensary, it appears to have been the prudent thing to do, legally and fiscally.

Fife elected officials passed a law banning marijuana retail outlets in 2014. Rather than give up and find another town, Wetherbee, who already ran dispensaries in two nearby towns, sued. (He pulled the same maneuver in another city when officials there tried to pass a ban.)

After losing a lower court decision, Wetherbee appealed—and Fife folded. In exchange for dropping the lawsuit and paying $35,000 towards the city’s legal bills, Wetherbee won an exemption from the ban.

Subir Mukerjee, Fife’s city manager, said the city gave up for three reasons. Wetherbee’s lawsuit was getting expensive, and the city was tired of paying lawyers. The tribal dispensary was going to open up anyway, meaning a mockery of the “ban” was already underway—but he also discovered data. As in, he looked around and found dispensaries “aren’t the crime magnet some people had predicted,” he told the newspaper.

Instead, Wetherbee is promising a cash magnet.

Once his dispensary opens in early March, Fife can look forward to “$150,000 in additional revenues annually,” he told the newspaper. Whether it’s the money or the whole saga’s inherent silliness, Fife mayor Winston Marsh is now asking the city council to take a “second look” at the marijuana ban, and perhaps, maybe, think about allowing other marijuana retailers in town.

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