How cannabis continues to split rural communities in the Inland Northwest

Growers aren't always welcomed in farm country. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Growers aren't always welcomed in farm country.

A young child cries out between action items as families and local business leaders pack into the Whitman County commission chambers in late February. At least two dozen residents had come to speak on a pending permit for a new 3.5-acre marijuana processing facility south of Pullman.

Neighbors argue they don't want the area to become a "Mecca" for marijuana. They tell the county commissioners that cannabis grows can come with noxious odors, increased water usage, higher traffic, potential crime, lower property values and unknown medical risks.

"We have no idea what the health impacts may be for my children, for your children, for the entire county," a local physician says. "Marijuana is not safe. ... I don't want to be part of a randomized control trial of how marijuana's going to impact my family's health."

Several of the county's largest employers — Washington State University, Pullman Regional Hospital and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories — send representatives to oppose the permit and call for tighter regulations on cannabis producers.

A biological chemistry professor warns commissioners that aerosolized marijuana particles could drift over to the nearby university dairy operation and contaminate its milk supply.

"We're very concerned at WSU," he says, "that that will lead to a significant negative impact both on Ferdinand's ice cream as well as Cougar Gold cheese, which for us is a big deal."

Dewey Scientific's permit application had sparked a local reckoning with weed. Commissioners later pass a six-month moratorium on new or expanded marijuana permitting that blocks the start-up from going forward. Another longtime producer also gets shut down while moving to a new location.

Sitting through the public comments, Paul Mihalyov, a co-founder of Dewey Scientific and a WSU Ph.D. graduate, appears discouraged. He shakes his head.

"It was absolutely the last of our intentions to step on the toes of anybody," he tells the crowd. "We absolutely did not want this to turn into what it has and we hope to be able to be respectful members of the community."

Seven years after Washington voters legalized marijuana and five years after shops started selling it recreationally, cannabis continues to split rural communities that rely on agriculture, but consider weed an affront to family values. The three Whitman County commissioners, all farmers, say they voted against Initiative 502 to legalize cannabis.

While some cities and counties enacted strict zoning or outright bans, Whitman County has treated marijuana the same as other horticulture crops such as hops or fruit trees. Opponents say marijuana license holders have come to see the county as an easier place to operate.

"This is a land-use issue, not an opinion poll on whether smoking marijuana is good for you."

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The state Liquor and Cannabis Board now lists 12 active producer licenses in Whitman County, which includes Pullman, the county's largest city. Commissioner Michael Largent says the sudden backlash to Dewey Scientific's zoning permit caught many local officials by surprise.

As he scrolls through the dozens of emails he has received on the marijuana debate, Largent says he appreciates citizens sharing their concerns. Officials say they have learned a lot in the six months since they issued the moratorium and they hope to put together fair regulations on future cannabis zoning.

"There are a lot of misconceptions and things thrown around with marijuana," he says. "[But] this is a land-use issue, not an opinion poll on whether smoking marijuana is good for you."

Largent calls the moratorium a pause on new or expanded activity so officials can consider their options for limiting cannabis odors, setting buffer zones or mitigating other potential impacts. On Sept. 3, commissioners will likely renew the moratorium for another six months.

But the "pause" shut down one local producer, Moonlight Growers, when it was forced to move shortly after the moratorium went into effect. Even though Moonlight sought to consolidate with another local grower and reduce its overall crop footprint, officials reportedly blocked the permitting as a potential expansion.

Moonlight Growers posted in April they had already destroyed their marijuana inventory and purchased construction materials for the move, but were denied.

"[We] are left without a home," the company posted, "and no time to find a new one. ... This has left a bitter taste in our mouths regarding Washington state and the recreational cannabis regulatory framework."

County officials say the grow eventually received approval to move, but the operation has remained in flux under different management.

A large, red binder dominates the center of County Planner Alan Thomson's desk. It contains copies of all the city and county ordinances on marijuana zoning across the state. Thomson says he's working with the county planning commission to draft new local regulations.

"We had no idea that this was going to happen," he says of the recent debate. "Things looked like it was moving smoothly and we had a number of businesses operating in the county. Then all of a sudden the floor fell out from under us."

Whitman County zones all land as agricultural use by default. Since the county classified marijuana as an agricultural product, it meant producers could operate anywhere as long as they met state guidelines on distances from schools, parks or other specific locations.

Thomson says his office is now looking to clarify where such grows can operate without creating problems with neighbors.

Some draft rules would require a minimum parcel of two acres for indoor grows and 10 acres for outdoors grows. Potential rules might require air filtration systems, light dampening and 1,000-foot setbacks from any property lines.

The planning commission has debated in recent months what constitutes an "excessive" smell and who would respond to complaints.

With other agricultural complaints, county officials often refer homeowners to a Code of the West-style document on their deed called the Certificate of Adjacent Agricultural Use. The contract basically signs away a homeowner's right to complain about farming when they build a house out in farmland.

"Residents of property within the vicinity of agricultural lands should be prepared to accept such inconvenience or discomfort from normal, necessary farm and ranch operations," the certificate states. "In the event of conflict, the residential property owner recognizes the preference to resolve it in favor of farm and ranch practices."

Thomson notes the certificate refers to activities allowed under state as well as federal law, so it does not seem to apply to marijuana cultivation.

Commissioner Largent says county officials can drop the moratorium any time once they finalize workable regulations. Or they could still decide to completely ban it. They do not want to rush the decision, knowing it's unlikely they can please everyone.

"As with anything in zoning," he says, "somebody's ox is going to get gored."

Dewey Scientific markets itself as a research facility dedicated to breeding consistent and reliable clones for selling to other growers. They emphasize their experience in molecular biology and biochemistry. They would operate under a license transferring from Chelan County after officials there enacted strict limits on zoning and operations.

The Dewey partners previously received a building permit to put in the state-mandated fencing around their grow. Since they wanted to both grow and process marijuana, they also sought a zone change to convert part of the property from agricultural to light industrial. The planning commission unanimously recommended the change.

Then the letters and public comments started.

Dewey Scientific recently declined an interview, citing scheduling conflicts. CEO Jordan Zager wrote in an email the company looks forward to supporting farmers, creating jobs and contributing to local tax revenue.

As it turns out, they can still grow marijuana at their location. The angry comments and the moratorium stopped the zone change for the processing operations, not the growing.

Since the company had already applied and received its fencing permit, state law considers them "vested" under the old rules for agricultural zoning.

County officials sent Dewey Scientific a letter on Aug. 14 confirming they had the right to grow marijuana. The rest of the debate will go on.

"We ... ask that you continue to follow the development of local regulations for growing, processing, and retail of marijuana," the letter states. "We would be grateful if you would strive to meet the intent of the new regulations in any of your endeavors." ♦

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About The Author

Jacob Jones

Staff writer Jacob Jones covers criminal justice, natural resources, military issues and organized labor for the Inlander.